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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Business  >  Digital Manipulation

Digital Manipulation: What is "Pure Photography?"

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 2467
1 Introduction  (422)
2 Philosophically Speaking...  (542)
       2.1 Factual Background  (559)
       2.2 What is Pure Photography?  (353)
       2.3 Photography as an Art Form (591)

This page has 9 images dated from
Jun 10, 1998 to May 30, 2004
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1 Introduction

We'll start with an old joke:

An old man excitedly makes his way into a confession booth at the cathedral in a small town, trembling in anticipation. He speaks quickly,

"Father, I am 83 years old today, with three children and eight wonderful grandchildren. I was married for 60 years, until my dearly beloved died two years ago. But last night, I had a date with two beautiful 18-year old girls!"

The father replied, "How long has it been since your last confession?"

"Never," replied the old man. "I'm not Catholic."

"You're not Catholic? Why are you telling me this?"

"Father," the man said in a high-pitched whisper, bursting with excitement. "I'm telling everybody!"

Is the Lightning Real?
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bridge, california, golden gate, golden gate bridge, horizontal, lightning, national landmarks, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
It's funny about "digital manipulation" of photographs. People take almost a religious attitude about the immorality of it, scorning how evil it is to alter the true, pure and honest representation that a photograph depicts of the real world. Some people will actually get upset if they think an image has been digitally altered, working themselves into tizzy, stating authoritatively, "That image is FAKE!", as if they've caught the photographer in the act of the eighth deadly sin, just in between "envy" and "pride." Over time, almost every photographer will eventually get the accusation, often in a mean-spirited and condescending tone, similarly to how prosecutors cross-examine defense witnesses. I imagine the following:

    "Isn't it true, Mr. Heller, that you intentionally placed the lightning in your otherwise generic photo of the Golden Gate Bridge?!"

I'd answer, "Why, yes I did. What's more," I'd continue, as if from a 1950's "B" film, "I'd do it again, dammit!" The gasps from the halls echo in the court-room chambers.

Real Life, Not Real Colors
(California, USA)
animals, dogs, horizontal, sammy, tunnel, photograph
For the most part, I rarely do this. (Nor do I act in "B" movies.) Why? Because it's very hard. (The digital manipulation, not the acting in "B" movies, which I don't do anyway.) Digially editing images well is insanely time-consuming to do well. I highly respect those who can do it; I don't scorn it. In fact, it's an art form in and of itself. Don't get me wrong—it's not that I don't do some digital editing of photos. I do. Every pro does. You have to. But, the question is, where is the line between proper "fixing" and outright "lying?" The problem has become that the purist photographer has scorned the mere mention of an altered image that we're all throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Yes, that's how it looked
africa, desert, dunes, horizontal, morocco, sahara, sand, sunburst, photograph
While only some people get really upset about digital manipulation, most don't really care that much, unless they feel they are being lied to about something important. But let's understand a little about history. Back in the earlier part of the 20th century, there was a group of now-famous photographers that called themselves the "f64 Club," who prided themselves on the fact that they shot pictures at f64 to get the sharpest possible photos possible. Why was this unique? Because in those days, photography wasn't considered an art form unless photographers manipulated their photos in the darkroom to "blur them up" so they would look more like paintings. Photography, it seemed, was "too perfect" for the critical art world, so to be considered valid, your photos weren't allowed to be too sharp. The f64 club was a small group of mostly San Francisco photographers that challenged the idea and went against the grain by making incredibly sharp photographs. And, well, the rest is history.

When people like Ansel Adams popularized photography for the common person, his idea of "the perfect negative" was coined. However, the interpretation of his meaning was misconstrued to imply that it is a photo that needs no manipulation. Yet, this was never his intent; instead, it was so named to reference a negative that was shot according to his now-famous Zone System—a calculation of light and exposure settings that took into account the properties of film so that you would intentionally over- or under-expose an image to make darkroom manipulation easier. This was deemed as the best way to yield a more perfect print. As Ansel Adams himself said, "the film is the score, but the print is the performance."

This tenacious grip on the truly perfect picture as the only true form of photography got further reinforcement by flagrant distortions of truth with less than altruistic purposes in mainstream media, ranging from the OJ Simpson "blacker and black" photo on the cover of Time Magazine, to the National Geographic fiasco, where a photo of pyramids in Egypt was altered so to get all three of them to fit on the cover of the magazine.

ylw-text.gif magnifier.gif
Real Lightning Storm
america, arizona, desert southwest, horizontal, monument, monument valley, north america, strike, united states, valley, western usa, photograph
There are several issues to address. The first thing is a matter of trust, and the second is a matter of artistic expression. Unfortunately, people are moving towards non-acceptance of aesthetic unless it's been accompanied by truth. So, the question then becomes, "What is truth in photography?" Or, put another way, "What is Pure Photography?"

Back to the question that started all this: "Was the lightning really over the Golden Gate Bridge, or did I put it there?" In this case, I put it there. I got the lightning from my series on Monument Valley. (The original photo from which I "stole" the lightning is shown here.) The fun part about this story is that I was accused of digitally enhancing another photo (sunset photo shown above), and I decided to do a real digital enhancement to illustrate the point. No sooner did I finish doing the "lightning over the Golden Gate Bridge" photo did I get an angry email from someone saying, "You faked that picture! You're a liar and a cheater!"

Are the houses leaning, or did I just tilt the camera with the slope of the road?
(Is this "lying?")
(Cork, Munster, Ireland)
cobh, cork, cork county, europe, horizontal, houses, ireland, irish, munster, photograph
It's important to realize one fact about photography (in any its forms, film and/or digital): to get a photo to render real life, one must do a certain amount of manipulation. The reason is a simple matter of science: the technical limitations in film, digital sensors, scanners, photo paper, and even computer monitors, mean that reproduced images cannot match the range or quality of light that nature produces in real life. Therefore, it becomes the burdensome task of the photographer to work within technical limitations to render something that approximates light. And, this is where the tricky stuff lies and where people part on their opinions.

Still, it's an artistic expression, and there's not a whole lot of discussion one can have on that topic, since it's so subjective. I happen to feel that photography is another form of art like painting, and I judge it solely on whether the artists' expression talks to me. Ironically, one can have a similar discussion with art critics, who feel that painters who so precisely match reality so as to look like a photograph are somehow a notch below other, more "impressionist" artists. What is this world coming to?

Fake Picture: People were placed there
(Rome, Veneto, Italy)
churches, europe, italy, nature, rome, sky, st peters, sun, sunbeams, vatican, vertical, photograph
One can easily raise their hand in protest and say, "Color-correction to match reality is one thing, and even more abrupt adjustments for creative expression is another, but these are hardly comparable to placing objects in the picture that weren't there." Yes, true. Unlike artistic expression, photography does have a different aspect to it, in that it does capture reality, and it can be used for more purposes than to just show a pretty picture. It can move people to fight wars, to vote for a candidate, or to buy products. This is old news; I don't need to get into this. But, the question then becomes, is a photo being manipulative, or is it telling the truth? What an odd question, because a "truthful" photo can just as easily manipulate opinion as an altered one. If you see a photograph of a large crowd of people protesting a women's clinic with anti-abortion signs, you might get one opinion of the public's view on the subject. But, what if the photographer used a wider angle lens to show that the crowd wasn't so big afterall, and that they were only bunched up together so as to give the impression of a large group for purposes of the photo. Gives an entirely different impression, doesn't it? Is this form of manipulation any different than if the photographer digitally cropped out the empty space where people weren't so as to give the same impression?

Photography has always suffered from the comparison of what the picture shows versus what reality shows. As its use as a tool for journalism grew, the expression was coined, "the camera doesn't lie." However, with that came an unfortunate misperception that the camera is somehow an objective, truthful window to the world. This fallacy was never intended, and has become like an albatross around the neck of the entire photography world due to the public backlash and distrust when people consider the possibility that a photo has been digitally altered.

ylw-text.gif magnifier.gif
3½ Hour Time Exposure
(Pure Photography?)
(Kilimanjaro, Tanzania)
africa, kilimanjaro, mountains, nite, star trails, stars, tanzania, vertical, photograph
The final version of an image is the one that is displayed to the viewer, not the film itself, or even the camera's role in it. When a photographer uses a conventional darkroom to adjust photographs to make them print "correctly," this has always been accepted as part of the photographic process. In fact, it's respected and admired. The film is an intermediate step to getting to the final print. In fact, it has only been since the introduction of the digital image did the "fundamentalist" movement begin in photography. In the days of the darkroom, no one ever asked whether an image had been "manipulated." Today, computers make the same darkroom tasks more efficient, where you can do a lot more than what used to be possible in the darkroom. So, people now have a distrust about what they see, and only respect those images that they feel are free from alteration.

So, answer the question, already: "What is pure photography? It just keeps getting more complicated, doesn't it? People refer to it as pictures that most accurately convey what the scene really looked like, as if you were standing there alongside the photographer. That's more about photo "journalism" a single aspect of the much wider spectrum of photographic expressions. But, even in photojournalism, "distorting the truth" is what photography is all about. One man's truth is another man's "spin."

Ok, so instead of asking "what is pure photography?", let's ask the more pertinent question:

    "What exact point along that spectrum of distortion lies the division between an acceptable representation of reality and an unacceptable distortion of truth?"

Some people think that "setting up" a photo (i.e., a non-candid photo) is more of a lie and manipulation than any other kind of photography. And there are lots of famous photos that have been later learned to be "set up." Such as the sailor kissing the girl on a busy street in France, or the famous shot of the American soldiers putting up the flag after they defeated the Japanese at Iwo Jima.

Reality is just a shadow of...oh never mind.
(Havana, Cuba)
artsie, black and white, caribbean, cuba, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, shadows, south america, vertical, photograph
I guess it's that I'm not so much of a purist that I care about such things. Photography is an art form not unlike painting. The objective is to present an image that evokes mood and feeling, or tells a story, or whatever it is that the photographer sees, or intends us to see. To me, photography as an art form takes on a new and different role: intent.

There are two schools of thought on the topic of "intent." One says that if any art form evokes an emotion or any kind of (dramatic?) reaction, then it's achieved its purpose as an art form. I'm not so generous, since vandalism accomplishes that, and few consider that to be an art form. So, I am a member of the other school of thought that promotes the idea that the artist has to have something in mind, and that intent needs to be conveyed to the viewer.

When I'm asked to view people's photos, an overwhelming percentage of photos suffer from a lack of one thing or another: intent, or communication of that intent. A moderately trained eye can see if there was an attempt made at intent; but an untrained eye can immediately say whether it was communicated well. That, of course, is the very litmus test!

More often than not, people shoot pictures and put the unaltered "result" on their webpage or in a portfolio presentation. Assuming the pictures are any good in the first place, they are usually missing the dynamic capabilities they deserve. It's like taking a score from a Bach sonata and feeding it to a player piano; it'll play the notes, but doesn't express the "feeling." Again, Ansel Adams:

    "The film is the score; The print is the performance."

Chinese Ribbon Dance (2)
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, carnival, chinese, dance, horizontal, people, private industry counsel, ribbons, san francisco, west coast, western usa, youth opportunity, photograph
In his world, that was the darkroom. Today, it's Photoshop. Digital editing isn't cheating, it's the modern darkroom; it's how you breathe life into a photo. Film and/or digital sensors don't nearly have the dynamic range of our eyes, so you need to bring that sense of reality (or "expression") back into the image using image editing tools. In short, make ME see what YOU see; make me feel what you feel; help me understand what drives you. Or, to put it more placidly, "What is it about that picture that made shoot it?"

Those who put raw pictures online either appear scared, or as a politically "purist", opposed to digitally editing their work. Granted, some shots are great "as is," and in those cases, don't touch them. Not every shot needs editing. But most do. My advice: pay close attention to your intent: bring up details that otherwise fade to black or burn out in the whites; "calibrate" colors in those scenes (night, sunsets, etc.) to render the true essense of what you felt when you saw it. If you took a picture that has a lot of sky in it, ask yourself what's interesting about it that prompted you to keep all that sky? Now go emphasize it. Use dodge/burn techniques (just like in the darkroom), and bring out contrast. Make those clouds punch. Similarly, if the image is about color, draw it out. If someone says, "crop it," it's a sign that you're not conveying what YOU thought made the "bigger" version of the picture interesting.

At this point, I encourage you to read the second part of this article, Responsibilities of Photojournalism.

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