photomanipulation, and ethics in artistic photography

Introduction: Comparing film and digital

Working in a darkroom gives you a much more tangible feel over what you’re printing, but working on a computer is an order of magnitude more efficient. I’m leaving out a lot, but here is a basic comparison:

In a darkroom, you can:

  • use different types of film/paper to give you different speed/grain/surface options
  • control the brightness of the light coming out of the enlarger, and adjust the time of the exposed paper, to fiddle with reciprocity
  • put filters in the enlarger to control the light before it hits the paper
  • use a dodging wand to cast a shadow and lighten parts of the print
  • tilt the table to correct perspective problems
  • expose a totally different negative on the same sheet of paper to get double-exposures
  • use different mixtures of developer in order to boost the contrast

In Photoshop, you can:

  • emulate all of the above (emphasize “emulate”)

..and:

  • organize all of your images the same as any other file on your computer — categorize by date, or any other metadata field stored with the file
  • apply the exact same development settings to a batch of images in a matter of seconds
  • store either five images or five hundred thousand images in the same amount of physical space on your desk
  • share images with other people as soon as you get them off the camera — near-instant gratification
  • do all of the above without smelling like vinegar at the end of the day

Problem
[sub]People take sides, and defend their side like a fortress.[/sub]

At a recent art festival, my booth was sandwiched between 400 other artists, fifteen of which were photographers like myself. Our medium was our only similarity. We differed in almost every other respect: equipment, experience, subject matter, and most of all — method. I shoot digital, they shoot film. I have only been in the art festival circuit for a year, they’ve been doing this half their lives. I exclusively shoot landscapes, and some of them do a mix of still life, landscape, and studio shots. In terms of method, I do quite a bit of post-production, while most of the other photographers do not. Surprisingly, they were quite adamant about telling everyone how “pure” their methods were. They not only mentioned it in their verbal sales routine, but had it printed on signs and banners in front of their booth. The two most popular themes being thrown around were versions of these:
– “I shoot film, not digital”
– “These were not manipulated in any way”

[sub](To emphasize the passion and smugness I heard from these artists, feel free and add “so there!” to the end of those phrases.)[/sub]

What do they mean by manipulation, and why would film photographers be so adamant about advertising something they claim not to do? Is a negative is somehow more “pure” than a file full of numbers? Is a chemical emulsion, which is affected over time by temperature and humidity, somehow more pure than a file which can be duplicated forever without degrading at all?

Maybe they’re talking about how they avoid other steps involved in the printmaking process. Even though they might not be using such obvious manipulation techniques as multiple exposure layering, painting with full-strength developer, or dodging & burning, there are still dozens of other variables that affect the outcome of the finished print. (Most of these variables are required in one form or another to create the print in the first place.) If I were just a little more confrontational, I would have asked a few questions:

  • When making a print with the enlarger, do you set the light to full power for a few seconds, or drop the intensity and leave it on longer?
  • Do you adjust perspective problems by tilting your enlarger?
  • Are there filters in your enlarger?
  • Are there any light-colored or reflective objects near your enlarger?
  • What brand of paper do you use?
  • What brand of developer? At what concentration? At what temperature?
  • What is the ambient temperature of your darkroom?
  • How many prints do you run before changing out your developer?
  • What brand of stop bath and fixer do you use? At what temperature and concentration?
  • Do you tone your prints with selenium? Why or why not?

Altering these variables alters the image. There is also a direct analogue between this list of film-based variables and the effects in a Photoshop pull-down list. So why do film photographers feel the need to demean the digital medium? Digital photographers emulate the same set of features by moving sliders around in Photoshop. Put another way, film photographers dabble in chemistry to get the same effect as artists painstakingly working with a bunch of computer software. For a photographer to claim that their images are not manipulated, they would have to offer their undeveloped rolls of film for sale.

Maybe they’re just limiting their definition to only include things like: pixel manipulation, adding elements which were not present in the original scene, and removing elements from the image, no matter how insignificant the result.

I understand that there are purposes where such manipulation is considered unethical:

  • police investigations
  • photojournalism
  • real-estate and product photography (developing the image is acceptable, but don’t alter the structure of the house)

But why is artistic photography seemingly held to the same limitations? Does photography have an inherent purity in regards to its subject that no other artistic medium has? If so, should the image retain this purity despite being used in an artistic fashion?

From another point of view, photography isn’t held to any limitations

There’s apparently an ongoing fight between studio photographers and landscape photographers. (I only recently learned about this, but it’s apparently been going on for decades.) The studio folks say the real art comes from having complete control over as many aspects of image creation as possible. They then claim that the landscape folks just grab their camera, go out in the yard, press a button, and don’t do any real work. This argument has the underlying assumption that better quality artwork simply comes from doing more manual labor.

Break down image creation into three categories:

  • Controlling the subject (adding and subtracting items; the number and position of light sources)
  • Controlling the camera (position of the camera; quality of the negative; in-camera settings)
  • Controlling the print (development and post-production)

Take the work of Annie Leibovitz for example. In terms of manual labor, she (well, she and her team) sets up a given scene, adds people, controls the lighting, takes a zillion exposures, then works it to hell and back in post-production until it takes on the quality she is looking for.

The photographers I mentioned further above do not control the subject, and avoid controlling the print any more than absolutely necessary.

Then we’ve got Jerry Uelsmann. I don’t know how to categorize him because even though he uses film, he manipulates his imagery more than most digital artists. (He uses a half-dozen enlargers, he only sleeps an hour a night, he might not be one person.. you know the rumors.)

Can you really tell who can make a better photograph based solely on how much work they put into it?

Maybe no matter what we do, the other forms of artistic media will get upset

Here’s an artist describing his trouble getting into an art show — because the show doesn’t consider photography as art!

quote from danbrownphotography.com

…the art council decided to eliminate photography from the show since they wanted the show to be a “fine art show”.

This would be understandable if it were the year 1850, but this happened just last year. They apparently decided to ignore this entire debate by leaving all photographers out in the cold! (I can hear them now.. “We’ll let you back in when you stop arguing!”)

However, I can assure you that most art shows consider photography to be an artistic medium. That man’s situation is an extremely rare one these days.

My conclusion

The concept of replicating reality bores me. This may prevent me from becoming a photojournalist, but I never considered myself a journalist in the first place. I consider myself an artist and will therefore take any liberty possible in order to produce whatever qualities that I desire in the finished product.

Maybe I should create a large banner for my art booth, “These images were photoshopped all to hell and back by: [insert name here]”.

This entry was posted in Rants.

One Comment

  1. pixelpame November 28, 2009 at 5:46 pm #

    I stand and applaud!