Reality is an important topic in photography and it is discussed almost endlessly. It’s a fascinating and divisive subject amongst photographers. It’s also incredibly complex to discuss, full of perceptions and blurred lines. “What is real?” is an intrinsically difficult question to answer and only becomes more difficult when placed in a photographic context. In fact I have written draft blogs on the matter several times only to start afresh. This time I am writing because I’m frustrated and I’m writing because I just can’t sit quietly anymore.
First let me share a few honest personal opinions. I believe that compositing a sky into a photo because the light wasn’t good enough is lazy or misled. I believe stretching mountains artificially to make them more dramatic is shallow or misled. I believe faking scenes without explanation shows a disregard for its effects on photography as an art form and is selfish or misled.
There are photographers prepared to return again and again to get the kind of conditions others choose to create in Photoshop. These ‘purists’ graft for their art and should be admired and it is part of the art of landscape photography and connecting to nature. Also understand that when I am discussing photographic manipulation I am talking about images that present themselves as photographs, images of flying elephants and other surreal images are not part of the debate. That is a different kind of art that has its own place. Please read this blog in the context of my bias and in the full knowledge that I DO MANIPULATE MY PHOTOS, and that I sometimes PROCESS HEAVILY. I am no saint, but my photos are real and I would stand behind every one of them. Lastly I know that people will read this and say that I am putting people down because I lack the talent, I’m jealous, arrogant, ignorant, bitter, a hater, a troll etc etc but I like to think that I am writing because I actually care about photography itself and what this all means for us photographers as a group.
This morning I was sent a link to a blog about photo manipulation on 500px written by Ignacio Palacios. In Ignacio’s blog he explains in some depth the history of reality in photography, which certainly indicates authority on the subject. It explains how photography is always a manipulation of reality through choice of exposure and framing. How in the past photos were composited. How photos don’t represent what we see. How reality is not an absolute. Amazingly (and admirably) Ignacio goes on to show how he personally creates some of his photographs through compositing techniques. I’ve never seen any photographer do that to a ‘faked’ image before, so he has to be commended for being open about it. He’s a talented artist who creates images that I like. In his blog he also gives voice to a gentleman called Steve Coleman who presents an opinion counter to Ignacio’s, again, you have to commend someone willing to present a counter argument in his own blog. However he also presents his points with an endless list of simplistic seemingly rhetorical questions which confuse the argument and he also fails to address what I consider the real issues. Let’s start by simplifying a little…
I asked a 60 year old friend about his expectations of how real a photograph is and he said “You said something the other day about moving mountains, that’s f**ked, that’s not real”. Mike is like most of the people I know. He understands that photographs can be edited, he expects contrast and saturation changes but draws the line at physically manipulating content: “That’s the reason why I don’t like pictures anymore, you can’t trust them anymore. There’s no reality anymore to pictures, if you start changing the picture, just go paint the f**ing thing”…”Don’t take anything away because you’re stealing what was there. When you’re lying to somebody about what was there… that’s not on.” I think Mike’s thoughts are pretty clear.
But ‘AHA!’ I hear the manipulators shout. “Mike isn’t a photographer, he doesn’t understand! Wide angle lenses distort the landscape, so we can distort them creatively! Why not use the perspective manipulation of tilt-shift lenses to exaggerate mountains in camera!? And if that’s okay then why not do it in Photoshop?” So maybe we can’t make rules, and I certainly don’t intend to make any. But Mike’s opinion matters, and it matters because he doesn’t understand photography, not in spite of it.
In defining photography maybe we should instead ask: ‘Is this image real?’. If you can answer “Yes!” it’s a photograph.
You can say yes with caveats of course, “yes it’s real but I boosted the contrast”, “yes its real but it’s a long exposure”, “yes its real but it’s an exposure blend to capture the tonal range of the scene”. But if you are saying “yes it’s real, but by the way I just pasted the sunset in and made that mountain 1000m higher” then you have a grave misunderstanding of what ‘real’ means.
I have never spoken to Ignacio, but he sounds like an honest bloke and if I asked him the above question he would probably answer ‘no, it’s not real’ with respect to some of his images. But when I look through his portfolio I notice there is no note saying “WARNING: THIS PHOTO IS A MANIPULATION AND NEVER HAPPENED”. There is a very obvious reason for this, aside from a note like that being somewhat ludicrous, it would also negatively impact people’s enjoyment of the image. Whilst some of his images have the tell-tale signs of being faked, Ignacio is very good at Photoshop and I have no doubt people believe in his images. People can look at a scene that is created artificially and be filled with a sense of wonder as if it were real. These images are cashing in on reality, cashing in on photography as a believable medium.
This is where the problem is; if you present any photo that looks real there is an assumption that it represents reality very strongly. At least that was the assumption. If you present a composited photo without making any mention of the compositing it creates an assumption that the image content is real. It is a lie by omission, deliberately misleading. It is the photographic equivalent of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf!”. This time it’s The Photographer Who Cried “Truth”. At the moment people will look at a photo and believe it, then find out later that it has been faked. Then they will look at another photo, believe it, and then find out it has been faked. It will continue in this way until people start questioning an image first and believing it second. Then eventually people will start to assume that fantastic images are not real at all.
The thing is Ignacio is entitled to process his images, as is any other photographer, I can’t stop them, it is art and they are artists. In fact I don’t even dislike photo manipulation, it can be very creative. Unfortunately I also remember walking into Peter Jarver’s Gallery in Cairns, Australia in 2003 when I was 16 years old and being totally amazed at both the standard of photography and the natural world itself. Those images were pure magic to me, it was a revelation, they inspired me and I wanted to capture the world in the same way. Perhaps the next generation will grow up with manipulation so pervasive that photographs are assumed as works of art and nothing more. And reality is more.
What a tragedy it will be when people stop believing photos.