Thursday, July 09, 2009

What Do We Want From Our Photographs?

Even before Photoshop, picnik, or a myriad other image altering programs came into being, people have messed with photographic images. Sometimes the alterations intend to deceive, sometimes they intend to portray another meaning, transform the underlying image, become art.

A new NYT controversy has emerged over a photo essay of construction projects abandoned because of economic hardship. It seems, despite the introduction to the series specifically saying no photos were altered, they were . . . altered. A lot of mirroring, some cloning, much of it to little overall effect, but some to create images more sweeping, it seems, than what may have otherwise been there to be captured.

Is the real sin here not in the manipulation but in the introduction? Don't tell us the haunting, vast photos are the result of long exposures if they are the result of long exposures and some clean up work.

Where's the line between cleaning up and fabricating an image?

Back in the darkroom ages, I recall using various sticks and circles to correct for dust and threads in images - trying to get the right shadows under the enlarger to burn or mask the technical problems I hadn't corrected in the camera.

Is a portrait photographer lying if she removes a blemish from a subject's face? What if the subject has acne? What if the blemish was a once-in-three-months aberration? What if the photographer carves her a more pleasing nose? Touches up her roots? Removes her under-eye baggage?

From the moment he gave me my first SLR, my father taught me that great photography happens in the camera, not the darkroom - or, nowadays - on the desktop.

Should we draw a line between color correction and exposure fixes and using cloning, etc, to correct compositiion? What about leveling horizon lines? Is that a lie or is it a truth? A slightly larger print and a matted frame could fix the horizon as well as picnik's tool, so is there a harm?

Of course, photography itself is a bit of a cheat. Photos (and video) don't deliver to the viewer the entire story. They can't. The best convey emotion and a truth particular to the viewer or the photographer (depending on your interpretation, I suppose). But I'm manipulating the view from the moment I frame the shot and click the shutter button.

Are you a photographer, though, if the images presented come solely from the processing, the manipulation, after you capture the initial image? Maybe you're an artist instead?

I think the problem arises because, culturally, we generally ascribe more truth-telling powers, more objectivity, to the photographer. Our interpretation of what we see will be influenced by whether we think we're looking at art or at a photograph - even though that distinction is probably a fiction.

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