Saturday Art – Thoughts on Manipulating Photographs
Exactly what constitutes a photograph is one of the big discussions that permeates photography. On one end of the scale there are the purists who claim that nothing should be done to a photograph after the exposure and then there are those who believe that any amount of alteration after the fact is fair game. The majority of photographers probably fall somewhere between these two extremes; I do not know many photographers who raise objections to sharpening, color adjustments or altering contrast or, on the other hand, who would call a collage of different images assembled in a software application a photograph. Personally, I don’t care that much but I am interested in the reasons as to why many photographers, especially the ones that I admire, do care passionately. Allied to this I am very interested in the history of this particular debate which seems to get little coverage despite the fact that it has defined photography aesthetics.
Artistic movements tend to be extensions of or reactions to both previous movements and/or society at large and photography is no different. Originally photography tried to imitate the appearance of paintings at the time with various tricks and processes being used to soften backgrounds and generally sentimentalize or romanticize the image. The reaction to this aesthetic, known as Pictorialism, was something known as “Straight Photography” among other things. The idea here was to aspire to an end result that was as close to reality as possible. The blurry backgrounds and sentimental poses were out and sharp, in focus, warts and all photography was in.
One group to emerge at this changeover was something that went by the name of f.64. The name itself is a technical thing, it represents a very small aperture, or hole, through which an image is shot. The smaller the aperture the greater the depth that appears sharp. The straight photography idea represented the belated (compared to painting) introduction of modernism into photography. The group was initiated by Ansell Adams and included among its members Edward Weston and around nine others. In a nutshell the groups manifesto was to produce photographs that were as ‘true’ as possible but that still allowed for the individuals to express there own vision within that parameter.
It might be assumed that this group, if around today, would eschew Photoshop and other editing tools but I am not so sure. Adam’s own position is in fact contradictory. He claimed to want photography in its purest form yet is famous for inventing something called the zone system which pushes the darkest tone to black, the lightest tone to white regardless of whether these opposites appear in the scene or not. This effect does give a photograph a lot of impact but does seem in direct opposition to the ethos behind straight photography. I am in a minority but I suspect that I’ll always regard Adams as a pictorialist at heart but that is another story.
After modernism along came post modernism which, apart from anything else, turned the camera around and pointed it at the photographer. All bets were now off, the aestheticism and purity of modernism were swept away and everything was permitted. This, coupled with the recent introduction of digital technology made photography both cheap and instant. A perfectly capable camera can now be had for around $100 and results can now be viewed and corrected in real time. The upshot of this is that many people now take photographs who wouldn’t have in previous times, and this means that the aesthetic is now being driven by just about everyone and not by a small clique with a shared and agreed history. Photography is no longer owned by the photographers it is owned by both the much bigger visual arts community, and more importantly, just about everyone else and this makes discussion about what actually constitutes a photograph all but moot.
As you have probably gathered I have no issues with photo-manipulation. As a rule I do not do composite work or use layers to create photoshopped pieces but will use just about any global type command e.g. changing overall contrast, color balance, sharpness, noise, grain etc. This is purely a matter of preference and has no basis in any aesthetic philosophy. Here, just for fun and only very tangentially related to this piece are some photos that I have altered a lot.