Today more than ever there seems to be a rising tide of mistrust towards photography. Perhaps this is due to the prevalence of fake news dispensed by social media and consumers becoming more aware and distrustful of what may once have been perceived as a medium of truth. For us visual creators this raises questions that it’s wise to ponder, not only so we can continue to create authentic and telling imagery but so that we can resist the constraints of an increasingly self policing society
For many, myself included, the very word ‘manipulation’ holds negative connotations, after all no one wants to feel they’ve been manipulated. Allowing ourselves to get lost in a manipulated photograph can make a viewer feel deceived, especially if the manipulation wasn’t explained at the outset. However the very act of describing a photograph as manipulated can turn folk off. I remember not long ago Artfinder, decided to change the categories of their art, and photographs which had been labeled as ‘enhanced’ or ‘photographic montage’ along with other similar terms were now categorised as ‘manipulated photographs’. For me this didn’t feel good and caused me to falter in my submissions to them as most of the work I sold through their portal were subtle multiple exposures or had a gentle texture applied to them.
As far as Artfinder were concerned any change to the image beyond the basic optimisation was seen as manipulation, the dictionary definition of which includes phrases such as ‘to manage or influence skilfully, especially in an unfair manner’, ‘ to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage’ and ‘to control or influence cleverly or unscrupulously’!
Dodge and Burn
I’m sure that very few photographers who change or ‘manipulate’ their images do so with that intent, although we all know it happens as we confront the constant onslaught of fraudulent images online on a daily basis. This will surely only become more prevalent with the growth of artificial intelligence.
It’s good to balance this with the realisation that photographers have been manipulating images since the birth of the craft, after all what is black and white if not a manipulation of reality. Perhaps we may counter that if the viewer knows the image has been changed by the photographer it’s no longer offensive, after all who on earth would think a monochrome shot was a true, untouched rendition of the scene the photographer saw.
However, as we explore this topic a little deeper we must consider actions such as dodging and burning, the art of manipulating the brightness of particular areas of an image, barely any memorable monochromes came out of the darkroom without a degree of this. It is said that many of Ansel Adam’s pieces are virtually unrecognisable when seen as raw, untouched versions. He was a master of darkroom manipulation and even pre-fogged areas of his film before exposure in order to more accurately convey his vision.
In the grand old days of black and white, publishers would routinely mark up a basic print with instructions for the darkroom printer to follow in the production of the final, often heavily dodged and burned, publishable picture. This would help set the tone and mood of the image in order to manipulate its emotional impact on the viewer to align with the intent of the article. Why even in the days of transparency film we editorial photographers would select the brand and film type in order to achieve a particular colour grading or tonality to reach the same end.
The impact of computer literacy
Back in those days when film ruled it was much more difficult to execute the changes of course. It took time, a good level of skill and cost real money in printing paper and chemicals to effect such changes but was very much the norm for professionals of all stripes. This has all changed today of course and anyone with a modicum of computer literacy can create a totally false image which to the vast majority of people would be impossible to identify as a fallacy. I think this is where the problem has arisen, and it’s only going to get worse as artificially intelligent algorithms are let loose on both still images and videos.
Over on Facebook commenters often suggest on my posts about creative photography that all images should be presented as they come out of the camera, or that at the very least the unaltered shot should always be posted alongside the manipulated one. This is the current level of distrust of photography that is endemic today.
Sadly many camera users are not aware that digital cameras are programmed to manipulate images even before they’re saved to the sd card. A software engineer, perhaps somewhere in the Far East, made a decision regarding how that scene will best look and set up the camera to deliver on that, rather than precisely what the camera recorded. This makes the images more aesthetically pleasing, perhaps more punchy and vibrant, but it is manipulation nonetheless, at least to a degree.
In fact, those of us who shoot raw probably wouldn’t dream of allowing an unmodified image to leave the stable as it would be tediously dull and flat. But that is just how digital cameras actually capture the scene in front of them, any clarity and vibrance is added later, either automatically in camera or with intent by the photographer in post processing.
Can the camera lie?
One of the great lies of our times is that ‘the camera cannot lie’ and we photographers have a great responsibility to wield our tools with authenticity and truth in order for our stories to be heard and trusted. However there’s much more to the art and craft than meets the eye. Photography is a visual language and we can develop the ability to use the medium to convey our message in an eloquent manner.
The very message of our image is created partly by the juxtapositions we choose to allow within our chosen framing. We can alter the impact an image has on the viewer by carefully selecting the viewpoint, the perspective, relationships with the frame, diagonal tensions, colour grading and more. In effect, a competent photographer can easily manipulate the viewer right at the time of shooting. And this is even before we add a well considered caption!
Shoot your viewpoint
If we have a particular viewpoint on a matter we can shoot our subject to portray that. I myself have done this many times both as a professional editorial photographer and when using my skills to get my own point of view across.
Not many years ago I attended and photographed numerous anti fracking demonstrations and had a definite opinion on the matter. I fell fairly and squarely on the side of the protestors and this meant that my images portrayed them in the best possible light. Someone with an opposing opinion who was equally skilled with a camera could no doubt paint an entirely different picture of the very same scene.
Who was showing the truth of the matter? Well, perhaps both of us… our own truth. The only way to capture the event in an unbiased way would be to have no opinion on the matter and any shots would invariably be soulless.
Recently we’ve probably all seen the shots of the packed beaches seemingly in defiance of social distancing, however an overhead shot showed family groups well spaced from each other. A compressed perspective told the story that the photographer wanted to convey, regardless of the truth.
By blindly accepting that a photograph is neutral, depicting the absolute and only truth of a matter the viewer opens herself up to manipulation. And perhaps this is the case with all media whether it be writing, painting, song or photography. It’s just that photography is ‘expected’ to be truthful because as we said before ‘the camera cannot lie’.
Pure objective truth, perceived subjective beauty
Does a photograph have to be shackled by the notion of pure, objective truth? Surely there’s room for perceived, subjective beauty too. During post processing I endeavour to portray the emotions I felt at the time of shooting so that the viewer may hopefully get a sense of them too. Therefore I’ll process the image in a way to strengthen and reinforce that message rather than just settle for a preset range of tones. For me this is the balance between truth and beauty. The image holds my truth as I felt it and hopefully uses beauty to appeal to the emotions of the onlooker. There’s also room for another version of truth to be resident at the scene that someone else, in a different mood and with differing opinions to mine, could catch and share. Who’s image is ultimately truthful?
There are four aspects to the photographic process that are involved in this process and these are 1) what the photographer saw 2) what the camera recorded 3) what the photographer felt and 4) what the photographer wanted to say. When these are thrown into the processing pot and given a stir the result will be one person’s story coloured with his experiences, opinions, education and perhaps current state of mind. The viewer will bring along their own baggage of perceptual allusions and illusions too!
Indeed a photograph is very much a moveable feast, or rather the act of photography is. And as such we can grasp the notion of the photograph as our own personal expression, and the art of photography as our way of sharing our world through our eyes. One of my pet joys of photography is to show my viewers things they would not usually see in the natural world around them and I do this by a careful choice of viewpoint, using the correct lens to modify the background, working with the right light and then processing the image to enhance the wild light I felt at the time of shooting.
Weaving your vision
If I add anything to a frame it’ll be a subtle texture layer to add more depth or subtlety to the resultant picture, although I will freely dodge and burn my tale into the pixels, weaving my vision into view. My truth and the subjects beauty needled together into a tapestry that is my version of reality.
At this time the world needs truth, our truth, and the beauty of this amazing place we inhabit. Where we draw the line is down to us, but we need to bear in mind that authenticity is key. Conceptual revisioning of a visual story to enhance the success of the message is one thing, downright deceitful manipulation is another.
As photography takes it’s place ever more firmly as an art form we can share our delight, our excitement and our joy of life by portraying our vision creatively using the full spectrum of tools at our disposal. We each need to determine our own path through this maze and for me, this is another great page or two in my Field Guide to my Creative Life. We can consider where optimisation becomes enhancement, where enhancement becomes revisioning and where this crosses the threshold to deceitful manipulation. By setting our own boundaries we can make our mind up to fully explore our creativity and play with the endless possibilities that creative photography enable.
Where would you draw the line?