The Heart of Photography

I have been pondering over what photography is. I mean really is. New technology has completely changed the idea of photography, from a mechanical/chemical device that would record reality to something much more complex. With digital technology and ever more advancements when it comes to digital tools available for the photographer, it gets more and more complicated to define what photography truly is. Particularly for me, working mainly in the genre of documentary photography, I find it troublesome to set limits for what is acceptable and not. The old saying «a photograph doesn’t lie», is simply not true any more. Even the idea that photography captures reality has become challenged by postmodern believe systems. According to some postmodern thinkers a photograph is not a picture of something that is real – but a picture of the idea of something real, or even a picture of pictures we have been accustomed to believe in through generations. Pictures exist on their own terms.

It was all so much easier when I started to photograph, long time ago – too long I might add. You put a film in your camera, and turned the camera towards something you wanted to photograph. The film recorded the «thing» and then got developed to make the image of the «thing» visible. Not so any more. A «thing» you see in a photograph might not even exist at all, but might have been completely constructed in a computer. The question then is whether this is a photograph or not. And more profoundly; what is finally a photograph? And does it even matter whether we define photography or not? Again for me – being a documentary photographer – it does matter. If viewers of my pictures don’t believe in what I show them in the images, then there is no point for me to even be doing what I am doing.

What is photography? We all know the literal meaning of the word. The word «photography» was created from the Greek roots photos – «light» and graphé – «representation by means of lines» or «drawing», which together gives the meaning «drawing with light». But that doesn’t help much these days where no light might enter a computer or be part of a mathematical equation to construct what appears to be a photograph in the traditional sense of the word.

Even a definition, that I for a long time thought came down to the core of photography, isn’t really relevant any more. In 1963 the French philosopher, Hubert Damisch, who specialised in aesthetics and art history, said this about photography: «Theoretically speaking, photography is nothing other than a process of recording, a technique of inscribing, in an emulsion of silver salts [or on an image sensor], a stable image generated by ray of lights.» For Damisch it was important that in the definition of photography, one didn’t include the dependency of a camera nor that it implied that an object or a scene from the external world was depicted in the image. When I first read this definition, I thought it was ingenious. But these days; is it still good enough? Damisch’ definition will clearly exclude any computer generated imagery. Then maybe that is exactly why it’s still valid – because computer generated imagery is not photography? I don’t know and I certainly don’t have the answer. By the way, I added the part about image sensor in the quote above, to make it valid even for today when most images are recorded digitally. For me personally it doesn’t make much different whether I shoot on film or digitally. That for me is only a matter of aesthetics and work flow.

A lot of the postmodern ideas rose exactly as a consequence of the new technology. With new technology came new thoughts. One of the foremost exponents for the postmodern thinking was the late Susan Sontag. Her book On Photography is a standard, classic reading for anyone who wants to dig into a more theoretical approach to photography. She brings many interesting ideas to the table, and looks at photography with a critical eye. First time I read the book, I took many of her thoughts to my heart, but at the same time many of Sontag’s statements troubled me, too. In many ways she took away the beauty and validity of photography as I knew it. For instance about Walker Evans – a photographer I believe is one of the greatest ever – she wrote: «Evans wanted his photographs to be “literate, authoritative, transcendent”. The moral universe of the 1930s being no longer ours, these adjectives are barely credible today. Nobody demands that photography be literate. Nobody can imagine how it could be authoritative. Nobody understands how anything, least of all a photograph, could be transcendent.» For me these are presuppositions I can’t agree to; I certainly believe that a photograph can be literate, authoritative and transcendent. Thus it was with great pleasure I read the book Why Photography Matters by Jerry L. Thompson, a working photographer who also writes about photography, in which he refutes Sontag’s degradation of Evans’ photography. He writes: «The repeated nobody in Sontag’s assertion suggest a fashion of ideas. Fashion rejects the old or familiar not because it no longer has meaning and use, but simply because it’s old and familiar.» Thompson points to the fact that exactly what she says Evans’ photos are not, her own statement is. And he goes on: «Sontag has confused the pictures with her own understanding of them, taking for the same two things which are in fact other. She has projected her own radical contemporaneity – her firm solidarity with those in present-day know who stand against nobodys – onto the ideal construction she takes to be slaves of fashion.» Let me add – for the sake of transparency – that Thompson worked as Walker Evans’ principal assistant from 1973 to Evans’ death in 1975.

Manipulations of photos aren’t something that has come with digital technique. It has always been carried out. Just for the fun of it – and not because it’s a good photo in any way; here is a photo of a sunshine I took back in 1974 – when I was starting to explore the then for me new and fascinating media of photography. The sunset was captured on slide film. But the seagulls aren’t real. I drew them on a piece of paper, photographed the drawing with slide film – and sandwiched the two. Manipulation and using mixed media decades before digital imagery had become public domain.
Manipulations of photos aren’t something that has come with digital technique. It has always been carried out. Just for the fun of it – and not because it’s a good photo in any way; here is a photo of a sunshine I took back in 1974 – when I was starting to explore the then for me new and fascinating media of photography. The sunset was captured on slide film. But the seagulls aren’t real. I drew them on a piece of paper, photographed the drawing with another piece of slide film – and sandwiched the two. Manipulation and using mixed media decades before digital imagery had become public domain.
Susan Sontag wrote On Photography before the digital era, and much have changes since then. Most significantly the many ways a photograph may be manipulated. As already mentioned what appears to be a photograph, does not even have to be an image of something that actually exists. One of the five characteristics of photography, the thing itself, that John Szarkowski wrote about in his classical book The Photographer’s Eye is no longer a requirement: «The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it; unless he did, photography would defeat him.» A photographer doesn’t have to deal with the actual – the real world – any more. She can construct it any she wants.

Where does that leave photography today? What is photography in a time when boundaries between crafts are dissolving? Maybe we need to look at photography with new eyes – not be bound by old definitions. One way of seeing photography that I have come to cherish I found in Dan Winters’ book Road to Seeing published earlier this year: «Photographs are one of mankind’s most profound expressions of stillness. They allow us the ability to hold time in our hands and facilitate a merging with time that exists in no other form.»

I will continue this discussion about what photography is next week. But in the meant time; what do you think?


145 thoughts on “The Heart of Photography

  1. Fascinating! I’m going to read it more closely later. I take pictures because I must. I don’t edit, beyond the occasional crop. I just love taking photos and going back to look at what I’ve caught.

  2. I like in particular the quote from ‘Road to Seeing’ by Dan Winters. With digital technology it has become easier (plus cleaner and healthier – no chemicals… 😉 ) to shape the photographer’s vision in a reality in it’s own right. And as you’ve written before in another blog posting; the Eye needs to be complimented with skills to let the vision become that reality. Always worthwhile to absorb this kind of thoughts. Thank you!

    1. No doubts digital technology has made it easier and, yes, healthier to bring forth our vision. But with that the traditional boundaries for what is photography are broken. Thanks for the comment, Herman.

  3. Thanks for this post: your thoughts are really interesting and the book references great. It is such a difficult topic to go through…very personal. It’s curious that nowadays everybody can take a photograph but we cannot agree on a definition of it. From my point of view it’s a memory. A personal memory of a seeing and a feeling.

      1. Mmm…. The tools you use! I need to go to work now, but I will try to explain myself better asap. Thanks for the chat 🙂

          1. your question has kept me thinking. I guess that the impulse of, not only taking a photograph, but editing it (in a dark room or with lightroom ;-)) is the need to capture a momento, to create a memory as I said before. I think (and you probably won´t agree on this) that a photo, as a drawing, is never completely objective, I mean, an exact image of the reality. Of course some photographers (and draughtspeople) are closer to reality than others…but you are always choosing a frame, exposure, speed…different elements to “recreate” what you look. I used to process my images in a dark room I made in my bathroom, and even there (as you commented on your post) I could manipulate the film and the photo. And that is as fun as deciding what I want to see through my camera.
            Sometimes I take pictures with my husband. Both of us with our cameras out there… These are some of my favourite moments. Even if we walk in the same path we never get the same pictures. We look at things in different ways…
            I don´t know if I have made myself clear (I am in a hurry plus my English is not my first language, as you have probably noticed) but I have enjoyed this a lot! Thank you 🙂

            1. Likewise, I have enjoyed this conversation very much, too (and by the way English is not my first language either). It may surprise you, but I agree with you. I don’t believe in objective photographs, but only in degrees of subjectivity. And I have so many times experienced the same as you. Whenever a handful of photographers photograph side by side, the photos always come out differently.

  4. Great read. You have put forth numerous points to ponder here. Sometimes though I think we spend entirely too much time trying to define what it is we are or do. I get that it is somewhat necessary to figure out where we fit; I just think peoples time and energy is better spent doing what they are doing. Things change so rapidly that I have no idea how we keep up with the ever-changing technologies and trends. I am not particularly interesting in where I “fit in.” If I like what I am doing I am happy; if others like it, I am ecstatic.

    1. On some levels I totally agree – as a practising photographer I just want to do whatever I like to do – just like you – and enjoy what I am doing. Still, at least for me, it’s important to put what I do in a framework that makes sense also on a more intellectual level.

  5. I think digital imaging has changed all sorts of things. The threshold for a distraction is much lower because these elements can be removed. My feeling is highly altered images should be marked as such, unless it is obvious.

      1. Well, there is the fashion industry controversy on body image. It is sort of a fraud.

  6. Your article raises some fascinating questions. I’ll be interested to read your next blog post. Here are some thoughts on your first post on this subject –
    Digital imagery which is based on photographs yet which includes computer manipulations can be seen as new hybrid art form – photography+ if you like. It is a new media which has yet to be fully defined.
    Documentary photography still has relevance and can be incredibly powerful – documentary war photography and photographs of disasters convey information and have the power to influence public opinion – it doesn’t matter if they are taken with an iPhone or an elaborate DSLR camera – what matters is the image.

  7. I am new in photographing, so what I am going to say is more of a viewer’s point of view. I was amazed at several “great” photographs I saw online. I showed some to my husband and said, “I want to learn how to take pictures like these.” I was crazy about them. Later when I learned how much “editing” was involved in producing those pictures, I felt being cheated, like reading a memoir book and liking it and later finding out 70% was fiction.
    I have no problem enjoying a fictional memoir or a highly-edited photograph. It would help me if we name those highly-edited photograph something else (PhotoArt?), so I know what I am looking at.
    Without knowing which photograph has been highly edited, every photograph I like, I wonder how much editing work has been done on it, and that thought takes away some enjoyment of mine.

    I hope I didn’t say anything to upset anyone. I am trying to look at photograph differently. I am working hard on it.

    1. I can’t see how this would upset any. You points are very valid, and I think just like when it comes to writing where there is a clear distinction between fiction and faction, so we need to do within the realms of photography.

      1. Thank you for this discussion and thank you for your kind reply. I am glad that I have a chance to tell you what I think. It has been bothering me and I was hesitating to say anything about it. 😉

  8. Thought provoking post, as ever, Otto. I read the Susan Sontag years ago, and another I have (but only partly read) is Roland Barthes’ ‘On Photography’. The thing is, both these were written by non-photographers, and therefore interesting from that point of view. I love that quote from Dan Winters’ book – I’m off to search the book out.
    I think for me, I am starting to see photography as just another way of creating art….so from that perspective, does it matter that it doesn’t necessarily reflect what was in front of you at that point in time? But of course it does matter in Documentary Photography…

    1. Photography as art is certainly different than photography as a documentation – and for the former I don’t think it’s important what was or what is the foundation of the image. But it does make a difference for the viewer to be able to make the distinction between the two – as Helen pointed out just above. Dan Winters’ book is really recommendable – but it’s a very think and heavy book…

  9. Look at the work of H. P. Robinson (1830-1901) and Jerry Uelsmann in the darkroom. Digital only made it easier for more people to manipulate images. Even Ansel Adams manipulated his images to get the look he wanted for his prints. If I printed from his negstives, you would see a very different final image.

    1. Absolutely. And many more, included for example W. Eugene Smith. The big difference – at least for me – is the fact that with digital imagery you can actually construct a whole new world that looks real – from scratch.

      1. I would call that digital art, not photography. To me, photography uses an instrument that captures the image, a camera. An image created in the computer from start to finish is not, in my perception, a photograph. Therefore, I don’t recognize a difference.

        1. I agree with you as to your last point. But where lies the boundaries between the two? And as for a camera to define photography; not doing so was one of the points for Hubert Damisch. For instance Man Ray made photographs by putting objects directly on photographic paper and expose it to light. In other words no camera was involved.

  10. I like the post very much. I think that photography is part of art and art (in general) should not have established defined limits. History is supposed to be a treasure of facts but in reality it is rewritten again and again. So I don’t believe that even documentary photography can be just pure reflection of reality.

    1. Art certainly includes photography – but that doesn’t mean that all photography is art, of course. And I agree with you, documentary photography can be pure reflections of reality – put neither can it be fiction.

  11. I had to turn off the news to read this. Fascinating write for me as a “late in life” self taught photographer wanting to soak up any knowledge I can. I like to think my “fine art” equine photography brings a profound expression of stillness.

  12. I think it all needs to be looked at as “art”. Photography in it’s very raw form is art if it captures something beautiful, or thought provoking. Digital art is the same. i love photography for the ability to see something from a different perspective, and thus create art.

  13. I’m not sure I should even comment, but, given that I read the piece, I will.

    No offense, but the piece to me seems to want to bring a philosophical discussion to something that does not need one. The answer to the question is that something constructed on a computer is not photography.

    I get that there is a blurred line between post-processing an image, and digitally manipulating an image to change what was actually there, or add something that was not there. But that is the key, isn’t it?

    The moment you have changed the content, you are doing something else, and it’s no longer photography. At best it’s using photography as part of whatever else you are doing.

    Post-processing, as you say, has been around for eons, altering light and dark, hues, saturation, and so on, is just a different way to show what was there. But digitally altering what was captured (removing a wire, adding a bird) takes you away from photography, and to call it such is essentially a lie. There are those that say that any manipulation is a lie. Technically, Ansel Adams was a liar.

    You seem concerned that as a documentary photographer you might not know what is real and what is not. I could point at your genre and ask the same question. We choose what we want to show in a photograph for the primary purpose of telling a story. Is it the truth? What’s off-camera that was not shown to me that night have changed my perception of a thing, place, or event? I have no way of knowing.

    The very act of framing the shot frames the story being told. Can it then be called documentary photography? Isn’t it just the reflection of the photographer’s own impression of a place, person, or event? Is it more accurate to call it a documentary of a person’s impression of an event through photography?

    Looking at an image, I am looking at something through the eyes of the person that created that image, be it photography, digital art, painting, or a simple sketch with no more than a few lines. I then share their focus, their passion, their way of looking at the world. Do I have the right to demand it holds a certain truth? At best, I have my own freedom of interpretation, or to dismiss it entirely.

    Discussing what is real and what isn’t real is a much broader discussion, extending not only into the presentation of images, but also words. Always, we see through the person behind the image, and photography is just one of the many tools to generate an image. No more, no less.

    1. The fact that you goes to length to write about the issue, is for me an indication that it’s not only a philosophical discussion that is not needed. If that’s the case philosophy in general is not needed – and I would not agree with such a point. There is a complexity inherent in photography that at least for me make sense to discuss.

      As you point out the is a blurred line – and the question relates to that same line. If a digital altered picture is not a photo any more, then just changing the contrast, would that make a photo not a photo an more? Or a composite photo or a collage of photos, would that not be a photo any more? I think the issue is more complex and comprehensive that you make it out to be.

      You state for instance that an altered image is a lie. But a lie in what way? As you say later in your comment, nothing can be rendered as truth in a photograph, so maybe then everything is a lie – whether it’s altered or not? The bottom line is that to be able to go into such a discussion we have to start defining word such as lie and truth.

      I agree with you that no photo can render the truth – whatever that is in the sense the whole truth and nothing but. Alas a documentary photo can not be objective, but will necessarily be made by degrees of subjectivity. But I still think there is a difference between documentary photos and photos for instance taken in studio – not to compare with computer generated photos. Just because a photo cannot show the truth, doesn’t mean in my opinion that it can’t be a documentary photograph. I accept the subjective inclination of the documentary photography. And I accept that it will tell a story in a specific way – but it still needs to render reality and not just some made-up objects.

      Anyway thank for you input and for your thoughtful point of view. I think it’s great to discuss issues like this and air different opinions.

      1. I tend to be verbose . . . Philosophy is interesting because it seeks answers to things that often don’t have answers. As long as it’s limited to that, philosophy is fine, sometimes even entertaining. The problem comes in when It purports to give answers, often making simple things complicated beyond the need for them to be so. But that’s another story.

        How about this? Differentiate between photography and what constitutes a photograph.

        Photography is fairly straight forward and well defined. Photography is “recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film, or electronically by means of an image sensor”.

        What you are discussing is what one does with that recording. Typically, the aim of the photographer is to present an image of some sort on any one of a number of mediums. It’s called post-processing for a reason, it happens after the fact, and it is an altering of the recording. So yes, to the purist anything beyond the initial capture is a lie (I am not a purist).

        Per my reading, you are discussing (perhaps lamenting) the increasing disconnect between a given image and photography. But, the fact that an image can look like a photograph and not be the result of photography is not a detriment to photography, any more than someone reproducing the Mona Lisa is a detriment to Michelangelo and the process he went through in creating the original.

        In that respect, art is a good parallel. There are some people who would scoff on owning copies of paintings, even when they are – to all but the experts – indistinguishable from the original. They are then not giving value to the image itself, but to how it is presented, its history, and its perceived age. They value the object itself more than what it shows.

        I read somewhere there are likely forgeries hanging in museums, admired as originals. It’s only knowledge (or maybe ignorance) that draws the appreciation and adulation for one image versus another.

        Is your argument leading to the same place? I understand part of your concern is the potential for showing things that just are not true, but that’s always been the case (staging is a good example). So what’s left? What are you actually lamenting?

        Speaking strictly about photography, from my perspective, there is no argument. Photography exists and continues to exist pretty close to what it has always been (from a capturing light standpoint). Graphic art will not supplant it, any more than photography supplanted paintings. Speaking of which, there are post-processes that can make photographs look like paintings . . . I’m sure people who work with brushes, paints, and canvas lament the fact. I just enjoy the end result, whatever the process, and don’t confuse the two, or wonder if one process is being ‘sullied’ by the other.

        1. Thanks for elaborating on your point of view. Let me just say I think the use is also important for how one understand photography. But I still disagree with you in that this is simple and not worthy a philosophical approach. I also realize that it’s not fair that I always get to have the last say here (even if it’s my blog), so I am just going to let your comment stand as such – at least for now. Nevertheless I really appreciate your willingness to discuss the matter and bring in a different perspective.

  14. There are artists who must do art, and there’s an audience who must see art. I am among the latter. Given my perspective, when I post a photograph, it’s my way of saying “here’s a thing that touched me, and I’ve done my best to capture it, and I would like to share it with you”. Photography is a response to the necessity of seeing and sharing (for me).

    1. I think any good photography, and art in general, needs to both have touched the artist during the creation and the viewer afterwards. I agree with you, it’s about seeing and sharing.

  15. A good post with a lot to think about. I was just reading something along this line a little earlier this morning, having to do with photography still existing as art….so there’s another little fly in the ointment. The first sentence of the Dan Winters quote made me catch my breath, “Photographs are one of mankind’s most profound expressions of stillness”; and with that quote, I know in my heart that photography is art.

    1. Yes, photography is art – or can be art. Just like anyone with a brush doesn’t necessarily make art, so neither will anyone with a camera. Thanks for your thoughts, Angeline.

  16. I loved this post. Very interesting. Just as the brush and paint made room for the camera, so does the camera make way for photoshop. It’s all art to me and the final result is all that matters unless one is doing some sort of historical recount and needs to have a “record” of the scene. I had a tutor for a blink of an eye that once said to me, “A photograph is a record, an image is art.” I’ll never forget that. Art has no limitations to me just as I hope people never feel limitations on what they can do. In there we find innovation and creation.

    1. I think that’s a good approach to art – that it doesn’t have any limitations. But still, I think some documentary photography is clearly art, but at the same time it’s imposed by limitations to make it count as documentary.

  17. I’m still digesting this post, but I’m so intrigued by all that you write, especially “Photographs are one of mankind’s most profound expressions of stillness. They allow us the ability to hold time in our hands and facilitate a merging with time that exists in no other form” , you have a way with the written word Otto!

  18. beautiful photo! This is what I see almost every time I climb the mountain to Lake Arrowhead on an overcast day. The mountain shrouded in cloud slowly appears out of the fog then the scene changes to dazzling color and the cloud becomes a white cotton ocean with islands of mountain tops in the distance. So breathtaking!!! Beauty, and photography is in the eye, heart, mind and soul of the observer. May we always be enthralled, surprised and delighted however we capture the moments!

  19. Thanks for stirring up these thoughts, but I like the last quote best. Shooting photos has always been a way for me to “hold time in my hands”. I have a hard time remembering faces or places without pulling up a photo image in my mind. I’ve always wondered if I’m the only one.

  20. Dan Winter’s quote is truly beautiful.” …profound expressions of stillness…” allowing us to hold time in our hands…I believe this is a description of the essence of photography and not the noun or the real thing. This is maybe the only way to define “photography” nowadays. A concept instead. Brilliant.

    1. Thanks for linking to Leanne’s post. And, yes, it is some of the issues I am trying to deal with here, but only partially I believe. I want to go to the core of what is photography and what distinguishes it from other forms of art. Thanks for your comment, Inge.

  21. I loved your thoughts…but, I have a very naive question…does it really matter? I believe, photography is a form of art…and the motive usually is to communicate something…what that something is, and how well it is communicated, that is the photographer’s prerogative and capability…and if the audience enjoys/appreciates what it sees….does it really matter, if the photograph was digitally altered or not? Does the audience really care a damn?

    1. On one level it doesn’t matter, but if you read Helen C’s comment you may see that it does matter on some other level. Particularly for me working with documentary photography the definition of the genre is important. But even general if you want to understand your medium, you will want to clarify what it is your are working with. It’s a matter for gaining more insight.

  22. An interesting post. Manipulation of images has been around for years, long before digital age. I had an exhibition of manipulated and heavily edited photos back in the early 1990’s in Austria and Italy. I consider it to be art rather than simply recording a point in time. 😀

    1. Which I have no problems with. I think in art you can do whatever you want to. It’s different with documentary photography for instance. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Raewyn.

  23. Very enjoyable and thought-provoking read, Otto, and I tend to very much agree with your views on documentary photography.

  24. A very good thought provoking thoughts around photography. I completely agreed with you that as technology moves forward the definition of photography also moves along. I can understand why the old definition was. I just recently thought that when a photographer takes a picture, it is not necessarily that he/she actually wants to represent the actual scene anymore. He/she may actually think even more on how the final image he/she *want* to come out looks like. I suspect that later part will be the foundation for the new definition.

  25. It certainly has a wide range from precise reproduction of what the eye sees to elaborate works of fantasy art. I think photography as with any other art form is a beauty which is in the eye of the beholder. Whatever makes the photographer happy is good enough for me.

    1. The starting point will always have to be the heart of the photographer – what makes him or her happy. But for me it’s also important in what context the photo is presented. If a photo is suppose to say something about the actual world, then I would be disappointed if it turns out that the image was all computer generated.

  26. Excellent post, Otto. Once again, a lot of food for thought. I’ve always considered photography to deal with the “actual” as you describe. One is making a visual record of something that is real. That real thing may be recorded very differently depending on the photographer’s voice, but it is real. But I’m open to learning always. Art evolves.

    1. It’s so right that art is evolving and the artist always so be open for new thinking. And I believe part of this is to understand and define the ground – as it changes.

  27. I recall a similar editoral several years ago in a newsletter from the ASMP. There was even reference to the witnessing of dialogue between two strangers at, I believe, a photography tradeshow in which people were being shown the latest Epson printers of the time.

    As a printed image came out of a machine, someone remarked in effect, “I’m not sure that’s what a photograph looks like anymore.”

    Someone else responded, “That’s what a photograph looks like now.”

    1. That is quite a telling observation. And I guess it shows that it almost impossible to agree on common ground when it comes to define photography. Thanks for sharing this anecdote, Allan.

  28. When images are manipulated beyond simply correcting exposure, etc, it becomes what I would call “digital art”. It doesn’t really matter, though, and for me, it’s all good. Each to their own, then, although in the case of photojournalism, it must tell the truth — at least as far as any photo can.

    1. That is exactly my point, Andrew, except I might not use the word truth, since it’s quite a loaded word, implicating more than I think is within the realm of any photography.

  29. I just think highly altered photographs should be marked as such. Some photos of nature are so beautiful and colorful that they don’t look real anymore. Too purple, too blue. I think I’m more into documentary photography. It’s more fascinating than highly photoshopped ones.

  30. Fantastic initial image and very interesting reading. I have figured out that like photography, I must also evolve, but my evolution of style can continue to express elements of my past, if they are important enough for me to hold onto.

  31. Great post and great food for thought. I believe photography has many purposes. One of them is just art and expression, which means there are no limits to what the imagination can do with a photo. I love that you were manipulating photos for art back in the 70’s!

  32. I have read all the various comments here. For me I love the editing process! I used to paint but developed a familial tremor. I know
    longer have any fine motor control to hold or manipulate small things like a
    brush! In LR and photoshop I enjoy going in and literally painting on my images with the adjustment brush to get different effects and colors! Yes manipulate the original photo but that is my direct intent an I get great joy out of doing it. Call it whatever you like: Digital Art, Digital Photography etc I don’t care all I know is that it satisfies me creatively and many times others too to the point they want to buy them. We all have different reasons for doing what we do, it’s all acceptable and I’m sure it scratches the creative itch we all who do what we do have!

    1. Again, I agree, and we all need to find the form and format that works with us. In the end it’s all about making it possible for our creative self to express whatever we have inside.

  33. Otto, I don’t have a problem whether an image is photography or art, it’s deception I don’t like. If someone were to create a photo of of a person, place or thing that can not be, then I have a problem with said photo and photographer, unless they say it is altered, or art.

    If you published a photo art blog, then I know that you may create an alternate photo-reality. Since you are a documentary photographer, then I know that a photo you publish is an image of an event that existed at that moment, never mind cropping, touch-ups. etc. In effect, I could have captured the same image if I were there.

    I don’t care if it’s film or digital, it’s the same problem, and all we have to do is look at photo contest rules to see a viable answer.

    1. I agree with you. It’s when something pretend to be something else than it is there is a problem. And, no, it doesn’t matter whether it’s captured on film or digitally.

  34. A deep subject, Otto. At one time, photography was shunned as an art form. Too mechanical, said the traditionalists. But nothing about Ansel Adams work is mechanical…well, wait a minute. Of course, he mechanically altered his work with photographic tools but how is that different from Michelangelo repainting a finger in the Sistine Chapel because it did not express what he wanted it to?

    It seems that photography is simply another medium for artists to express their inner vision. Even the earliest documentary photographs could be called subjective images because they documented what the photographer chose to show…using camera angle, lighting, excluding/including certain elements.

    To me, photography, whether documentary or decorative, is an expression of what is inside the photographer. (I mean if said photographer has the skills to express that. :-o) The more technically skillful the photographer, the better equipped he or she is to express what is inside.

    Then we get to all the photoshopping. At first I was a bit disturbed by this new digital arena. But watching the growth of one of our local photographers who has moved into the digital world in a big way, has made me realize that every change an artist makes in photoshop is a calculated choice. Beautiful, striking, and unforgettable images don’t happen without both vision and skill. Cut this couple out and drop them in front of this sky…that takes a particular vision. The choices are exponentially growing.

    Exciting times we live in.

    1. Good photography certainly has to come from the heart of photographer. And there is nothing wrong with photoshop – depending on the circumstances and what kind of photography it’s used with.

  35. the philosophical question of photography…..well, it is letting light make an impression of reality which is then recognizable as a 2d format of a 3d environment. the question of “why” do we take photographs only really arises when it becomes a more commonplace action. the original purpose is “I like this spot in my 3d environment and want to remember it.”. though many times it is attached to a sense of wonder in the interacting elements. so when does a photograph become art? because some could argue that the real artist is god or creation. and so photography would then be the sincerest form of appreciation for that artwork.

    would have to answer the question ‘what is an artist’. ….it is a person who sees two different worlds: the one they are in, and the one that is in them.

  36. I love what you did with the seagulls on the sunset. Proof that we have been manipulating what we see far longer than we may think. Photography will always be a form of art to me. If an artist adds a new technique or media to their painting it doesn’t make it any less a painting. It still remains their art. Something they create from what they see. I believe the photographer is the same. Just because we have more tools at our disposal to create our vision does not make it any less our photograph.

  37. Your poignant topic, which is constantly in my thoughts and even entering the global consciousness, is about the art of self-expression hand is at the heart of the issue. Throughout art history the tipping points for innovation have created dialogue that stimulates more dialogue. There are numerous purists and numerous others open to change and the new. Without a metamorphosis in the creative process there becomes stagnation. This new age of the digital is helping to release a state of consciousness about the photograph and the photographic process. Whether its the digital darkroom or the traditional darkroom, the dimensionality of progress is part of art and its meaning.

  38. I do believe photography is an art form and personally I don’t think much about the processing of an image, I am just usually drawn to a photo that evokes some sort of emotion or touches me somehow..special effects or no. However, for documentary photography I think there should be some sort of categorizing. I like how you equated it to literature and think maybe we should think in terms of fiction and non-fiction for that type of photography. In my mind, documenting something is far different from creating something.

    1. What you write here goes to the core of what I am concerned about. As for photography as an art form there are no limits, but when it comes to documentary there will have to be some requirements and limitations.

  39. Phew, I have learned a lot from reading the post a few days ago and now all the comments so far, Otto; lots of food for thought. I have put Dan Winter on my list! Your manipulated photo from ’74 is amazing and I very much like the thought of fiction and non-fiction!
    Ha en god pinsehelg.
    Bonn strekker seg mot 36°…

    1. I am glad you learned something, Dina. I always love when I can learn something new. I am in Seattle right now and we have around 23°. Quite perfect. Ha en god pinsehelg du og.

  40. This is a great piece on the nature and continuing evolution of photography! Smart phones with sixteen megapixel lenses and advanced zoom mechanics are right around the bend… Some of our ‘modern advancements’ I love, some I don’t. I guess the real challenge, whether a creative or realist photographer, will be how to stay true to one’s own vision of what a photo ‘should be’ vs. could be?

  41. “.. the most profound expression of stillness” 🙂 Thank you for this post, Otto. I look forward to your sequel.

  42. Great post, Otto, and you have started a very interesting conversation here. I love the Dan Winters’ quote at the end, and think that best sums up photography for me. I do think there is, and should be, a difference between documentary photography and digitally manipulated images due to the nature of “truth” (or documenting truth) although even that can be manipulated in the composition of a photograph and have it still be said that the image wasn’t digitally altered.

    For me, photography is about the moment and my inner vision, but I am not a documentary photographer. It’s about my relationship to nature, and I sometimes find that the camera doesn’t capture what it is I saw. Those are the times I rely on minor tweaks to bring out what I found important or beautiful about the scene.

    I’m looking forward to your next article in this series. Thank you for bringing us all something to ponder and discuss.

    1. I think all photographers from time to time feel that a «plain» photograph doesn’t capture what he or she saw. And to make the expression more consistent with the photographers vision, we tweak the final result – which generally I think is not only acceptable but also necessary.

  43. Looking back over the past 20 years, I am stunned by the changes in this industry. I miss the ‘subtly’ that I use to find and enjoy so much in photography. The ‘truth’ of simplicity and little post production. It seems this type of photography has been replaced by a vibrant creative side that allows us to do so much more with so much less…and it is exciting. I then began to realize that the older niche of what some people call pure photography, will very little post processing that produces these “subtle aspects of photography” I love is still there, and is still powerful as ever ~ and the beauty is that there are now so many more niches and aspects of photography that it is almost overwhelming.

    As an industry, I think the business side of photography has evolved so greatly that it is creating problems for the old school and new school photographers alike ~ and while this is scary it is pretty exciting to see such dynamic changes. Wonderful post Otto.

    1. Through times all new developments have been seen as a challenge to the established ideas – and often as more destructive than constructive. Just look upon how photography was once suppose to kill off traditional painting. Of course it didn’t, just as the new digital possibilities won’t destroy photography in a more classical sense. But we are at a cross-section where both new and old media need time to find their own places in the new world order.

  44. On the first page of the first (physical) photo album I created as a boy in the 50s, I wrote, “A Photograph Is a Window to the Past.” Although artistic photography existed almost from its infancy, the ability of photography to freeze a moment in time was its primary use. The Dan Winters’ quote you gave can serve as a definition of all photography across time, but I think in this digital age we are left with talking about “categories of photography.” The ability to create on a computer an image that has no basis in reality moves photography beyond its “recording” function, unless we include “recording anything the photographer can visualize in his or her mind.”

    1. I very much agree with you. And it’s this categories of photography I want to continue to discuss in my next post. Thank for sharing your thoughts on photography, John.

  45. Ja, jag säger bara…Otto, min själsfrände…jag håller med i mångt och mycket…jag säger emot lika många gånger…men jag orkar inte fördjupa mig här och nu bland alla dina kommenterare:)
    Jag hoppas att vi, någon gång i framtiden, någonstans på vår glob, kan sammanstråla och utbyta tankar och erfarenheter…det skulle vara jätteintressant!!
    Ha det gott och trevlig sommar var du än är…

    1. Det går helt bra, du trenger slett ikke fordybde deg i verken det ene eller det annet. Og jeg er helt enig med deg; la oss håpe på at vi kan få til å treffes et eller annet sted i verden. God sommer til deg og min sjelefrende.

  46. A thought-provoking post, Otto. The general nature of the dilemma you raise is, of course, not peculiar to photography. As a classically trained musician I have found myself constantly having to revise (and re-revise!) my definition of ‘what is music’. The ever expanding world of new technologies has led to a very diverse range of forms that are often difficult to equate with earlier terminology. ‘New’ indicates ‘different’ – not necessarily better or worse, right or wrong..

    1. This goes directly to the core of what I am trying to discuss: Not whether new technology is better or worse, but what impact it has of our understanding of the art.

  47. Always a pleasure to read you, Otto. It is really challenging to give a simple definition of this fast changing art form. I totally agree with your take on documentary photography. Documentary or for that matter wildlife photography are genres in which a photographer shows the viewer facts she/he may never be able to see or experience first hand. They may be presented in an artistic manner but they are also supposed to impart knowledge to the viewer about their surroundings and the world they live in. Any kind of digital manipulation would just not be right 🙂

    1. You are right in that wildlife photography and documentary photography come in the same category when it comes to manipulations. Thanks for sharing your point of view, Uday.

  48. An interesting article as always Otto. When I started taking pictures again a couple of years ago, it was a long time since I’d used film and stepping into the digital age was a revelation and a complete joy. I knew none of the controversy surrounding the processing of images on the computer and I still struggle now to understand why some still suggest that to process and image on the computer is somehow cheating and that this is no longer true photography. I embraced it wholeheartedly. It gave me the opportunity to reproduce what I saw rather than what my camera saw. I think this argument against is ridiculous and shows a total lack of imagination and creativity. It’s something I find quite irritating but, I guess it gives people something to talk about and perhaps feel superior about but a digital camera captures the light and turns it into pixels. That’s it and it’s just the beginning.
    My camera captures the scenes I photograph in a rather perfunctory and soleless way. It’s a mechanical process ‘capturing the light’ and creating a RAW digital file. It contains none of the emotion that I felt when I took the picture. It is my job when I get home to tease that emotion out of the RAW file using all the tools at my disposal. It’s an essential part of the photographic creative process in my opinion.
    The degrees to which you engage in this processing and how far you push it will depend on the type of photograpy one does of course. For years all documentary photography was in black and white. We don’t see in black and white therefore a black and white documentary photograph was no more a true representation of anything than a digitally processed colour image. Documentary photography captures a moment to tell a story in an honest and factual way, that’s not to say that the documentary photograph can’t be processed to in such a way as to express more truthfully the photographer’s emotion when capturing the scene. In fact I’d say it was essential. We need to feel what the photographer felt and wanted to show us and this cannot be done by presenting us with an unprocessed RAW photograph.
    We take a photograph to tell a story, to capture a moment and a feeling. Why wouldn’t we use all the tools at our disposal to make that more complete and if that means digital manipulation and enhancement, why not? My landscape photographs represent the landscape of Cornwall as I see it. They are a personal representation and as such nobody has any place to say whether using Photoshop to process them is right or wrong. They are what they are. They express how the landscape moves me, excites me and fills me with joy and serenity and as a landscape photographer, if I can make you as a viewer, feel even a modicum of what I felt photographing the scene, then as a landscape photographer, I have done my job. 🙂

    1. In many ways I agree with you – that a photograph should be true to the photographer’s vision and radiate what he or she felt during the act of capturing the subject. But I would really resent any documentary photo that would add an element or an object to the picture, just because that’s how the photographer “saw” it. It has been done – and it’s never been acceptable whether it’s been done digitally or in the old darkroom. As such I don’t find the discussion ridiculous, but think we should accept the fact that photographer’s are different and approach their photography differently, as are the genres different in that they demand a different approach.

      1. Hi Otto,
        I meant to add that the addition of elements into a documentary photograph would of course be a step too far and I didn’t mean to imply that the discussion was ridiculous either, it was the suggestion that one shouldn’t process one’s photographs, plain and simple and I’ve heard it said, ‘get it right in camera and you don’t need to’ etc. When you shoot RAW it’s a requirement. I think this is a very interesting discussion, what is a photograph, in this fast changing medium and I’m really looking forward to your part two!

        1. I don’t get it right in the camera and I use RAW so that I can process my images later, but I see that it’s not only an ethical consideration whether one choose to do so or not, but it’s just as much an aesthetic consideration, because it makes you much more alert in the moment of capture and thus produces a different result.

  49. These days, as you imply, it’s almost impossible to craft a definition of photography without entering a highly philosophical realm — and then aren’t we necessarily getting away from a “definition”? As for classic photographers who wrote reflectively about their art, I especially like Robert Adams and Andreas Feininger. Anyhow, this is a great post — something to start us thinking!

    1. Yes, if you by definition mean a clear and unambiguous definition I think you are right. But reflecting on the matter will only make us wiser – I hope. Both Adams and Feininger do and did some excellent reflections on the matter of photography.

  50. Wow Otto, what a post! I reread it with all the answers and comments. I think that the difficulty to define photography is what makes it so interesting, at least for me. Everyone can have his own definition, according to his personality, desires, interests. It’s fascinating! I’m a simple amateur, no need to make profit from my photos, It’s easier. But I need to be true to myself. I understand that for documentary photographers things are more complicated. I’m afraid it’s the price to pay for the technological benefits available now.

    1. One thing which should all govern our photography, whether we are amateurs or professionals – and no matter how we see or define our photography – is to be true to oneself. That is the bottom line. It’s also one reason I started this discussion; to find out where I stand myself. Thanks for a great input, Robert.

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