Tuesday, December 11, 2007

More On Alterations

Jacob has added some good comments to the previous discussions about image manipulation/alteration or whatever you want to call it. Clearly he is disturbed by and part of the image being created new in the editing process. For him it's ok to adjust pixels, just not create them. While I don't know the figures, I would guess that 90% of photographers are comfortable with minor editing - the removal of an errant blade of grass, a pop can or a twig, leaving the scene fundamentally the same and recognisably so.

Just to muddy the waters (hey, I'm having fun with this discussion), lets take a scenario in which fidelity to the original might be important. Someone is contemplating visiting a particular spot, say Columbia Ice Field, and they look at my photograph of same and expect to see that when they get there. As it happens there are no "new" pixels in this image. I only made contrast adjustments to better balance the shadows and highlights and were you there that November afternoon, you would recognize it in the image. On the other hand, our prospective visitor goes in the summer in the middle of the day and things look totally different and he's quite disappointed. Many had the same experience with Ansel and Yosemite.

Back to our pop can. I'm photographing Red Rock Canyon in Waterton Park. I photograph it digitally, adjusting colour to the way I remember the location. Someone else photographs it with Velvia film and produces highly saturated colours which are frankly over the top when printed. On the other hand, I digitally remove a pop can from the ravine which wasn't visible in his shot. People look at his image and go "oh wow!" and others comment on my image - "that's exactly as I remember it". SO which one of us shouldn't be called a photographer?

For some, the answer is easy, I created pixels while the other photographer only manipulated them. For others the issue isn't nearly as clear cut, and for some of us, who care only about the resultant image, it's who cares?

In truth, I'm a little bothered by my very biased stand here. I can think of examples in which manipulation seems like cheating to me. I was incensed as anyone when National Geographic moved the Great Pyramid because I think National Geographic is about reporting and not art. If someone took a very ordinary looking mountain and somehow in Photoshop stretched it to look more grand than Everest it would bother me a bit - even though I'd have to follow my own words above and agree that it's only the end product that matters.

In my photography, I do create pixels at times. Uusally the percentage of created pixels vs. manipulatd ones is a tiny fraction and in landscape work, my images do largely reflect the original scene with only normal photographic controls available to traditional darkroom workers, with perhaps a bit more fine control. I might well remove the Pepsi can or the errant twig or blade of grass but if you took a print to the scene, you could certainly recognize it.

The biggest cheat I have done is to extend the length of a block of steel in one of my machine shop images. I had reservations about doing it, did "fess up" at the time, and still have doubts about it, but it sure made for a better composition, and I could have moved the steel up by the same amount so it isn't totally unnatural - just sort of. Still, you'd recognize the scene just fine from the print.

Occasionally I will "fill in" a small triangle of image corner in which no matter how hard I tried to compose perfectly, I could either include the extraneous corner or crop out a vital part of the image.

Perhaps some of you will be so disturbed by this confession that you will be unable or unwilling to return or to check out my images. I respect that viewpoint even if I don't happen to think it very practical in today's digital world. For me it's rather like the people who feel only a true contact print from the original negative is acceptable, none of this fancy modern enlarging crap for them. More power to them, if their images are good enough to warrant the trouble they take.

G'day all.


tcoen said...

Unless you're a journalist or a scientist or have some other ethical or moral obligation, why does it matter?

On a completely unrelated note, I saw your book in the imaging-resource.com news sections. Congratulations, I'm looking forward to reading it.

Jakub said...

Thank You for reading my prevoius comment - I was afraid it was too long.

I think the "digital" word in this discussion is irrevalent. The editing was possible for years, just not so easy. The question should rather be how much alternation is acceptable - the tool is a secondary thing.
I was thinking about the question when I have seen a photo of Stalin and Yezhov for the first time http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Yezhov. Yezhov could be asked to step aside, just as You remove a can of coca-cola. The fact is he wasn't and changing the photo afterwards is a manipulation.
To make the waters clear let's forget about the technique in this discusion and focus on waht's acceptable and what's not.

I suppose most people treat photography as a kind of reportage. (That's what I do). As soon as they will be considered the same way as paintings (can be real, but can be unreal as well) the moral problem will dissapear.

You have written that You had reservations. Why then not to comment the picture as "image based on photography from machine shop"? It will still look the same, and You will have no moral dilema.

Chuck Kimmerle said...

Photography is about the person behind the camera, not the scene in front of the lens. Anyone expecting to see reality in a photograph is fooling him/herself. A photograph is not, and has never been, about reality. It has always been, at best, a sort of personal truth (photojournalism is no exception). As such, it's open to both personal biases and subjective interpretation.

Consider this...if photography was all about absolute reality, Ansel Adams' photographs of Half Dome would look little different than those of any tourist standing at that same overlook at that same time. The fact is, they don't. And that is why photography has never been, and can never be, about true reality.

Lastly, I'm a bit leary of any arguments stating that contrast and tonal manipulations, however severe, are acceptable, but that scenic alterations, however slight, are off-limits. There's simply too much overlap, thus subjective interpretation, to be definable.

JB said...

In my mind photographers can be divided into four major groups:

1) Fine art photographers, epitomized by Adams. This group has an image in their mind that they are trying to create with the camera and in post production. General manipulations, contrast, color, removing items from the shot are all fine in this group as they work to create the shot that they see in their mind.

They make no claims to photojournalistic accuracy.

2) The photojournalist school, or Cartier-Bresson school. They believe that the photograph should represent reality. Nothing other than minor post processing tweaks for this group. This group is often upset by groups 1 and 3.

3) The anything goes school or Man Ray group. They prefer to avoid any tinge of reality in their work.

4) The vast group of consumers who only want a photo of Aunt Sally at her 40th birthday.

My philosophy is to pick a group that I like at any particular time and work that way. If I see something that I like done by some other photographer, no matter what group they are in, then I applaud the work and photographer.

George Barr said...

Well put by JB.


Jakub said...

@Chuck Kimmerle:
I agree with You that my proposition of distinction is not completely clear and allows overlapping. I don't see it as a problem because it wasn't directed to lawyers and judges but to photographers. It is completely up to You to decide where is really the border; and if someone else will have different opinion then You it doesn't matter, because there are no law consequences.

Tim Gray said...

Appologies in advance for a bit or a ramble here:

Unless you're using an extremely wide angle lens, the capture is NEVER what you saw because you have deliberately (hopefully) excluded the vast majority of what was really, really there. Nobody ever gets bent out of shape because you didn't show the "whole" story in any given photograph. So right from the get go we're dealing with an abstraction of reality. Maybe we need the same disclosure that you get in fiction books: "This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental".

The longer I follow this debate the more I'm of the view that it's my image, I'll do whatever I darn well want to it.

BTW, I posed the identical "moving the can" scenario to Jay Maisel. His reply literally was "How many angles can dance on the head of a pin?" (and gave me the approiate Jewish term for that kind of debate which occurs between Rabbis - which I can't recall).

If the image is for forensic purposes, there is a whole additional layer of technology that's available to make sure it's not tampered with (obviously, other than the tampering - another word for editing - that is executed by the photographer in the process of framing).

I have no control or responsibility for what National Geographic photographers, or other "editorial" phtotographers do, or do not do to their images. I think in today's world anyone who looks at an image knows there's at least a possibility that the image is "less faithful" to "real world" than they might like or expect and deal with it accordingly.

Going back to the literary world -when fiction gets passed off as fact, and gets discovered - depending on the impact - a hue and cry is raised and that particular publication attracts certain consequences, but there's no angst around the written word as a controversial media. I don't think photography should be any different.