I recently shared a photo I’m proud of on Instagram. Reactions ranged from very positive to those denying my work the title of “a photograph,” calling it “computer graphics,” or “photo-graphics.” This got me thinking. Do people really understand the concept of photography and why are they so adamantly against photo-manipulation?
I became passionate about photography after the birth of my twin daughters Annabella and Juliette; they inspire me every day in my work. Through photography, I strive to enter the world of my two children, to grasp all the childhood whimsies and to recreate these magical moments that we all look back on and smile. This means using whatever photographic tools will get me closest to that vision. Photoshop is just one of those tools.
Photography was invented over 180 years ago, but it’s only with the relatively recent invention of digital editing software that image manipulation has become the subject of popular controversy. Really though, this just shows our lack of awareness of the history of photography: image manipulation didn’t start with Photoshop. In fact, it’s always been an essential part of what photographers do.
As I dug a little deeper, I came to realize that art and news photographers have been manipulating their photographs since the very first days of photography. So the argument that a particular image is less of a photograph because it has been retouched didn’t seem at all convincing to me. If we started ruling out retouched images from the category of photographs, we would be left with not a single photograph in the world.
Since the invention of photography, image manipulation has been a key part of it. The 19th-century photographers liked to call it “removing imperfections” from the shot, and they did it by painting directly onto the glass-plate negatives. Sometimes, an entire person would be “painted out”. Moreover, they would combine multiple frames in the darkroom to add dramatic elements to their photographs.
Similarly, most new photographs, made over the course of the last century, will have been cropped, dodged, burned and even painted to some degree. The photographer does this in order to better illustrate the story on the paper. Even the snaps in the family photo album vary, depending on the film, the chemicals and the color settings used. Most photos are certainly not simply neutral, un-manipulated snatches of the real world. They are rather a real-world story told in a beautiful way.
Sure, I can see why heavy use of Photoshop might be worrying in the area of photojournalism, but I do not consider myself a documentary photographer. Far from it. In fact, I think my work is a little like making a still movie. Image manipulation has always been a part of filmmaking too, but nobody ever suggested that a movie using a blue – screen or CGI is not a movie (cinematography?). There is art in applying these techniques as well. Thus, I will use whatever photographic tools will get me closest to my vision.
The word photography literally means writing or drawing with light. The process of making an entirely computer-generated image – such as a digital illustration or animation – couldn’t really be described as “writing with light.” This contrasts sharply with my way of working: in simple terms, I make images using a box with a hole that lets light in – so they can definitely be considered “photo-graphs”. The fact that I edit these images afterward using software doesn’t change this. In any case, it’s not fundamentally different from what people were doing in the darkroom over a century ago.
Now that I have tried to raise awareness about the history of and about photography in general, I would like to hear your opinion. How would you define photography? Please share your thoughts on when a photograph stops being a photograph. How much manipulation is too much manipulation?