Altering Reality– It’s Nothing New

By Arthur H. Bleich–

Critics of computer-altered images usually divide photography into two time periods: the honest analog days and the dishonest digital ones. If it were only that easy. Tinkering with images is as old as photography itself; it’s merely become more sophisticated.

It took years before this image was proved to be a hoax.

It took years before this image was proved to be a hoax because “the camera never lies,” right?

In the early days of photography, “spirit” photos depicted departed loved ones hovering near the living, and fairies were shown dancing in the woods. And because people believed that cameras captured reality (and knew very little about photographic techniques) they accepted these altered images as truthful.

General Blair (seated r.) really wasn’t there.

When the Civil War ended, General Sherman and his general staff were scheduled for a group portrait at Matthew Brady’s studio in Washington. Unfortunately, General Blair couldn’t make it so Brady photographed him at a later time, pasted him into the group picture and re-photographed the image.

Ansel Adams also altered reality. His famous Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 had some clouds in the upper sky that annoyed him.

The original contact print of Moonrise.

The original contact print of Moonrise.

So after selling a number of prints with the intrusive wisps, he simply removed them; later photos are cloudless. Early prints with clouds might be quite valuable today– if they can be found.

Poof! The upper clouds are gone and a large dose of contrast has been applied.

Poof! The upper clouds are gone and a large dose of contrast has been applied.

A more audacious manipulation was done by W. Eugene Smith, one of the world’s greatest photojournalists and a self-proclaimed champion of truth-in-photography. Returning from Africa in 1954 after shooting a photo essay on Dr. Albert Schweitzer for Life magazine, he was distraught over a damaged negative and set about resurrecting it.

A alteration like this today, if found out, would cost a photojournalist his or her job– and in some recent instances actually has.

A alteration like this today, if found out, would cost a photojournalist his or her job– and in some recent instances actually has.

After burning, dodging, bleaching, and performing other alterations to the image, he still was not satisfied. So he took new pictures of hands and saws and superimposed them on the original image. It took him days to finish the composite, something that now could be done in an hour or so with Photoshop. Smith never revealed he had altered the photo; it ran in Life and became one of his classic images.

As I see it, there’s really not much difference between analog photo alterations of the past and the digital ones of today. Both raise the same ethical questions. However, the public’s growing knowledge that photos can now easily be altered mitigates against blind acceptance of photographs as reality– as was the case when people weren’t as aware of what manipulative techniques could yield.

Photoshopped? No way. This was shot with a real bubble. © Kiyoshi Togashi

Photoshopped? No way. This was shot with a real bubble. © Kiyoshi Togashi

In fact that knowledge can sometimes have unintended effects. Nowadays, if a talented photographer makes an outstanding image the old-fashioned way, it is likely to be labeled as “Photoshopped” because, after all, how could it be that good without digital manipulation?

There are certain kinds of photos that would be impossible to make if it were not for contemporary software. Take, for example, high dynamic range images, digital focus shifting for infinite depth of field and the enhancement and registration of multiple star shots. On a more mundane level, look at all the pre-set modes in amateur cameras– many of which alter reality on the fly, sometimes to a ridiculous degree.

Painters have always altered visual elements of historic scenes to make them more compositionally pleasing and dramatic. Though I was not there at the time, I can assure you that George Washington did not stand up in the boat when he and his troops crossed the Delaware River nor was the crossing made in broad daylight. Photographs that are artistic expressions should be judged the same way– with digital manipulation accepted as just another creative tool made possible by technological advances.

Not exactly authentic.

Not exactly authentic.

I see no need for creative images to be marked as “digitally altered” any more than artists should label their works as “not exactly authentic” though, in the publishing world today, “photo illustration” is the new phrase. The question, of course, is where does photography end and photo illustration begin? No one has yet come up with a definitive answer to that and I doubt it’s coming anytime soon.

12 Comments

  1. Remember the old “Jason and the Argonauts” movies? I have heard it said often that the new “Hobbit” movies are a lot more realistic. Both are trying to make you feel like what you are seeing is real and provoke a response from you like fear and danger. It would be a silly argument to say that the Argonaut movies were more pure because of technique thus they should be better and yet Hollywood does argue this very thing.

    If you study the biology of the human brain and how it records the visual world around us (Biology of Seeing by Magaret Livingston ISBN 0-8109-0406-3), you will realize the visual isn’t visual at all by the time it passes the retina into the brain. It is a record of feelings and impressions. By the time you finish this book you will realize that if you want to record what you (the photographer) are seeing for someone else to view, then you will need to make several embellishments to get the image across to someone else. This is the same if you were standing out in nature with a person standing with you and you wanted him/her to see what you are seeing. Even the him/her is important when you are at a sporting event. We see everything though our life-trained filters of interpretation.

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  2. As a amateur photographer I take many photos that are of varied composure. Many of them I keep and show as is, but the ones that I really like, get edited in many ways before I print or show them. With that said reality is in the eye of the beholder. If someone asks me if I altered a photo, I always say yes because by the time an image is processed digitally or chemically it has gone through some type of alteration.

    So it makes me happy when I get or give comments on a photo. This was a great article and I wish more people could/would read and understand this subject.

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  3. Just be sure you keep clear the difference between photography and digital imaging — they are not the same. They may both begin with the use of a camera, but the final outcome is very different.

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  4. Ansel Adams “altered” every image he made. His techniques, his own type of “zone” , his chemicals that he made to develop his prints, were an alteration of what he saw in “his minds eye”. THAT is what separated him from the “others”. I have two prints that I shot the scene and printed. I was asked if I used photoshop to make the images, and I said no,because I do not use “PhotoShop” , I composed the scene, adjusted the aperture , selected the ISO setting, picked the speed, then shot. I got it right before I shot.
    However,I did enjoy the article,very interesting.

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  5. Photography is slowly being accepted as an art form.

    In gallery exhibits people comment that many of my images appear as paintings. While I should accept that as a complement, I’d rather hear the work conveys concepts or emotions the viewer feels.

    An image, whether paint, pencil, crayon, or photographic is nothing but a vehicle with which to communicate.

    There’s even a place for layered angels. Just not for me!

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  6. Great article. Well written.

    I suspect that no camera or artist has ever captured on film, sensor, or canvas, exactly what the eye has seen, in exactly the same colors, hues, lighting, texture, etc., in exactly the same perspective, angle of view, etc., seen by the human eye. To top it all off, with all the color blindness and lack of 20/20 vision in so many people, I’m not sure what a typical eye-full would be.

    I’m glad that we’re able to capture, display, and share what we’re able to see or imagine to any extent at all, regardless of whether it’s art or some other version of reality.

    My emotions have ranged from near-tears to amazement to outrageous laughter at various photographs, whether Photoshopped or not, and I appreciate the entire range.

    Just think of how it would be if we had to experience every animal, plant, person, edifice, landscape, etc., first hand, and were unable to rely on still or moving images to be there for us and give us a version of reality.

    Can you imagine only being able to read about the Grand Canyon, George Washington, the pyramids, and Lady GaGa and not have any images to help?

    Quibbling about whose photographs are pure, and whose are not, seems to be an awful waste of time.

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  7. 20 years ago I wrote an article for a photography magazine and asked the question: “How much work do you have to do to a photograph before it becomes something else & is no longer a photograph?” That was at the beginning of the ‘digital age.’ You wrote: “The question, of course, is where does photography end and photo illustration begin? No one has yet come up with a definitive answer to that and I doubt it’s coming anytime soon.” Right!

    Today, in 2015, we have enough “digital history” behind us to easily answer the question. As photographers, we know, but our opinions don’t count. Until someone who’s opinion does count, like gallerists or museum curators (who don’t have the guts to express an opinion)the question will remain unanswered.

    There is difference between “photography” and “digital art,” but what that difference is remains undefined. IMHO, “digital” is a new art-form; it’s “photographic” but not necessarily “photography.”

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  8. Great article. I have always found this topic very interesting. There is no black or white answer to this, but it really just depends on what kind of photographer you are or want to be known for.

    I do believe photography is an art form, and there are a billion ways to process a single photo. Every little decision the photographer makes, from taking the shot, to the editing is what makes them an artist…Having said that not everyone’s intentions are honest, and that is a whole other debate.

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    • Photography is and has always been about altering reality. Every decision matters, whether it be about film, resolution, color or B&W, framing/cropping, lens, printing on what paper, etc., reflects a particular ‘take’ on reality. Some of us go to extremes and add/subtract/enhance/manipulate post exposure, but that is no more ‘artificial’ than the original exposure.

      There is no such thing as a perfectly realistic photo. Perhaps if we can educate viewers to that simple fact, they will move from asking what the image ‘is’ and ‘how did you do it” to an appreciation of the visual/emotional/conceptual experience when they look at out work.

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    • I am a photographer and have been taking photographs since I was eight years of age. I did darkroom work and creatively I made art in the darkroom and outside the darkroom as well. Superimposing images in the enlarger as well as sandwiching images taken with slide film. I have produced some amazing art in those days and yes today in the digital darkroom as well. I am an artist as well as a photographer and if I make people see a photograph, any photograph, whether manipulated or not then I have created my art as I intended it to be.
      Yes, when I display my work people ask me “Did I manipulate it?” I always seem to answer the same way if I did. I ask them if they ever heard of the Great Photographer Ansel Adams,and explain to them that he manipulated photographs in the darkroom way back when, burning and dodging areas of light and dark to produce the image he wanted to create.
      We manipulate photographs even when we think we are not. Bending light with reflectors is one such way.
      Pasquale Leuzzi

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      • We, as art photographers, see the use of Photoshop manipulation as a benefit to our craft. Why? Because software makes even extensive manipulation so easy to do; it gives us so much artistic flexibility (compared to how Eugene Smith or Jerry Uelsman had to do it). In a matter of minutes we can completely transform a raw image into one that has no resemblance to the scene captured on the film/sensor.

        But to art gallerists, art collectors, or anyone who claims to be a serious fine art intellectual, the ease of photo manipulation is exactly why photography is sometimes withheld as a serious form of art. The use of software (read that, “easy”, “automatic”, “amateur”) as the predominate tool in our toolbox, if we admit it, somehow cheapens the result in the eyes of such ‘intellectuals’. This, my friends, is why that question is so common: “Is that Photoshopped?” To us, it shouldn’t matter. To the rest of the visual arts world, it definitely does matter. In their eyes, there is very little craft involved in the use of computer software. Even if we know differently.
        Here’s my personal opinion on the matter of photomanipulation: http://jrileystewart.com/blog/2014/07/02/my-answer-to-is-that-photoshopped/

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