Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Commentary on Photo Legitimacy

Yesterday I posed a question on's forums. To get a well rounded answer I posted in the m4/3 forum (the forum I most actively participate), and the retouching forum. 

The subject of my post was:

A Commentary on Photo Legitimacy

And the question I posed was:

How far is too far in regards to photo manipulation?

Within 24 hours I had received almost 100 responses and it really got me thinking that this is an article worth writing in some depth, maybe even an academic piece to bring me back to my university days. The problem I'm faced with is the scope of such an article. For the purposes of this blog I'll give a rough summary of the responses that I received and try to display the posts as closely as they were in their original state. After all, if I wasn't transparent with an article on "Photo Legitimacy", the irony of the situation would probably kill me.

The initial responses were simple ones:

Jack Sofield said: "If it's my photo I can go as far as I like; if it's your photo I can only go as far as you like in post processing. Simple."

brucet said: "Photography is an art form. Art has no limits."

These posts called into question Photojournalism and Advertising where there has to be a more defined set of rules and at this point the conversation took off in two VERY different directions: Historical and Social.

Starting with the historical perspective:

Adamant said: "Ansel Adams and his contemporaries manipulated their pictures a lot. Dodging, burning, etc. I think it's all fine, but you should always start with the best possible image you can capture."

This sent me to Google to search for manipulated Ansel Adams images and most links pointed to "Cascade, Yosemite National Park 1968" a gelatin silver print where AA flipped a negative in the darkroom to mirror the two images creating a perfectly symetrical image. Was this wrong, should AA have been chastised for this untruth in photography? No, not at all. His art was just that ART, and just as "brucet" mentioned above, art has no limits.

This post was followed by Greg. linking to a VERY interesting website about historical photo manipulation: 

Turns out the iconic image of President Abraham Lincoln (circa 1860) is a composite of Lincoln’s head and the Southern politician John Calhoun’s body, photo manipulation is not a new thing, it didn't start with Photoshop 1.0 in 1990. The photographer Mathew Brady, was famous for these kind of composites and we've seen several examples of this manipulation without even knowing it, and I think that's where the problems lie. Everyone is so quick to point the finger at Adobe for destroying photography but actually the popularity of Photoshop has led us to be naturally skeptical of images that look just too perfect. This idea brought forward by castleofargh described a call to foolproof viewers instead of the photos themselves. I completely agree, photo manipulation is never going to stop, in fact it'll probably become more rampant, so we need to train our brains to see what wasn't there in the first place. 

This leads us to the social aspect of photo manipulation:

Certain strands of photography have more obligation than others to be transparent, namely photojournalism and advertising. Beginning with photojournalism, the point of these images is to tell a story, like a piece of evidence it normally stands strongest with eye witness accounts and written testimonies. The viewer should be able to view an image in trust that it wasn't manipulated or shot in a way that is untrue. Unfortunately, it's not just photo manipulation that is called into question here, it's also situation manipulation.

castleofargh said: Instead of paying 3 local kids to go look scared in front of a soldier (who's actually the guy escorting the photographer), they fake it on a computer.

If the story is going to be faked, it will be. All that we can do is hope that codes of conduct are honoured. Reuters has in place a manual of sorts to keep things transparent:

A Brief Guide to Standards, Photoshop and Captions (Thanks Lights for the link.) 

Whereas photojournalism is a type of photography that we hope can maintain truth, advertising is a different kind of animal. Advertising's purpose is to sell a product, this is true but it's supposed to be done in a manner that doesn't call into question the product itself. Yes, we know that a BigMac will never look quite the way it does on the posters, but at least it shows two patties with lettuce, pickles and cheese on a sesame seed bun, it gets the point across. 

My problems lie with fashion photography, sure the models are coated with make-up and what not but what message are you putting across when the photo manipulations alter the colour of the actual clothing they're wearing. What's the point of advertising a dress if there is NO WAY you can have the item shown? Most recently Vogue ran a cover story on Lady Gaga's Transformation:

In the original photo she looks like a Pomeranian caught in a wind storm, but if the point of this magazine is to push make up and hair products why drastically change the shape and colour of everything, even the dress. And to that point, why bother doing her hair or make up at all, if you're just going to tear it apart in post? 

"Spectacular Fall Fashion for All!" Not really...I won't get into the social ramifications of the image that this picture instills on the female youth of today, I'll save that discussion for another time.

Are we going to stop photo manipulation? No. Do we need to? No, it's obviously been done FAR longer than any of us have been around and it won't stop now. I think we just need to be more skeptical when we look at a photo and never be afraid to ask questions about the original photo and how it differs from what we see on TV screens and magazine covers.

Thanks for all the great comments and links on, to take a look at the two separate forum posts, take a look here, and here.

I'll leave you with my favourite comment by AMAllan: "If you post process a picture of me and you make me look like George Clooney, that's fine. If I turn out looking like Mick Jagger, you've gone too far."

What do you think?  Comment belo

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a great read and some very interesting points indeed. I like the point about 'if the photos great in the first place'. I think that a photo or Art piece has a higher percentage of pride and gratification and only those who have taken it will suffer if it is really a cheap shot ; ). Editing is art, but we don't post pictures of restoration so we shouldn t change things to make others believe something happened that didnt. Cheap shot.