What Does It Matter!

Why bother about trying to define what photography is? And does it matter whether a photo is digitally altered or not – in the end who gives a damn? In my post The Heart of Photography last week I initiated a discourse about what is and what is not photography. I didn’t try to come to any conclusions but my intent was to raise some open and relevant question. The comments and the debate after I had written the post were both engaging and diverse.

Many of those who commented were not troubled by the possibility that the digital era of photography has opened up for huge alterations and manipulations of the photographic expression, they saw it either as an extension of the artist’s vision and the artist’s interpretation of the moment of capture, or simply didn’t care – they want to take their photos and don’t feel the need to get involved in a theoretical discussion about photography. The latter take their photos for memory reasons and don’t see much more into photography.

For me it only shows that we all have different ways of both using and seeing photography. As one of the comments stated: «Photography has many purposes.» I think any discussion about photography will have to take that into account. But just to raise the bar: Even the happy snapper would not put up with a photo of President Obama hammering his shoe in the pulpit of the general assembly of the United Nations on the front page of New York Times – if it in fact wasn’t true (this happened for a former Soviet Union head of state, as a matter of fact).

One comment stating that my post seemed to want to bring a philosophical discussion to something that does not need one, made me think why it is indeed so important for me to define what photography is. It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, but at the bottom of it all lays a need and a desire to understand my chosen form of expression. For me to be a good photographer I need to understand the more subtle and underlying truism that defines photography. I need to understand in order to use it as effective and creative as possible. Understanding what photography is also relates directly to my integrity and credibility as a photographer. I am a professional photographer and I depend on people understanding what I am trying to convey in my photos – and believing in my point of view. My field is mainly documentary photography (although I diversify in many directions – and more and more so in later years) and it would be a catastrophe if any of my photos were labelled forgery. Others in this field have done so and been disclosed. They went out of business.

A small digression but nevertheless an apropos: The American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith was a huge role model in my younger days – and I still think of him as one of the greatest photographers we have ever seen. In 1989 Jim Hughes – the former editor of Camera35 and Camera Arts – came out with a biography about Eugene Smith; W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance – The Life and Work of an American Photographer. In the book Hughes revealed that Smith had often manipulated his images in the darkroom. It wasn’t known until then, because Eugene Smith was very particular about never letting anyone see his negatives. For instance in the famous portrait of Albert Scweitzer taken in Lambaréné in Garbon, the tools – perceived as his tools – we see in front of him was added from a different negative. And another example: the picture of a wake which was part of Smith’s big Life story; The Spanish Village. In this photo Smith made people look at the old man on lit de parade – moving their eyes as he wanted them to be – by burning, dodging and bleaching their eyes. When the book came out it created an uproar among photographers and other people in the media business. Back then I didn’t get the indignation, for me Eugene Smith had just processed the photos in accordance with the way he had seen the events. Today, though, I have quite a different perspective on this matter.

To elaborate more about how understanding what photography is is important for me in order to perform fully as a photographer; this comes down to understanding the visual language of photography as well as being able to see the context a photograph is functioning in. For me there is a big difference in the way I photograph between doing a story about refugees in a displacement camp in Goma, Congo or if I am shooting on the streets of Vallegrande in Bolivia (which by the way the photo accompanying this post is taken from). Likewise there is a big difference whether I photograph for a magazine or if I photograph a personal project. It’s part of the inherent style of any given genre.

I have no problems accepting that most people who shoot for memories don’t care about genres, but I not only live of my photography but breathe for it. In many ways it may be compared to writing. Most people write letters or diaries or notes or blogs without being consciously aware of different genres of writing. But a professional writer, whether he or she writes books or for a newspaper, needs to know – and adapt – to different genres. There is obviously a different code for writing non-fiction than fiction, but it’s also a different matter whether you write a crime detective novel or a romantic novel. The style is different and the way of building a plot is different. The same in journalistic writing. There is a big difference whether you write a news article, an editorial, a comment or a feature article.

Photography is no different. For me, obviously, the biggest difference is whether you do art or documentary photography; in the former there are basically no rules to how you accomplish the end result, while for later it’s not indifferent how the image you present was acquired. But even art photography and documentary photography are nothing but broad categories; within each of them you will find an abundance of genres each demanding different photographic approaches. I am not saying that one should stick to rules that govern any genre as little as I mean that a photograph should stick to compositional rules. And I certainly don’t mean to say that alterations or manipulations of photographs are bad or unethical. On the contrary. But you need to know the rules before you break them, and you need to know why you break them if you do. Otherwise the result will be very confusing and lose its power.

Digital enhancement or alteration is fine – it’s more than that, it’s a fantastic tool we should use as much as possible – artistically. But it’s not indifferent how and when we do it – even in arts or in circumstances when it might not seem to matter much. I am sure most people don’t rustle up much conscious reflections around family snapshots, but I am sure no one would be very happy if the photographer had digitally eliminated one of the persons in a group photo of a family. It comes down to context.

For me Helen C’s comment in my post The Heart of Photography gives the best argument for why we need to be concerned about what photography is and in what context we use it. She said: « 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.»

Photography has to be seen in context. And photography is not one thing; it’s an array of different forms and expressions. This, though; I will return to next week. In the meantime; what different genres do you perceive photography can be divided into – and what are their different characteristics?

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About Otto von Münchow

Photographer based in Norway
This entry was posted in Photographic Reflections, Photography and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

105 Responses to What Does It Matter!

  1. ninagrandiose says:

    For me, the ART of photography is capturing the moment perfectly: the framing, the lighting, the composition, the emotionality, all in one click. The manipulation of an image is tampering with that moment and it then enters the realm of science, not art. Why didn’t Smith want his negatives seen? He knew it was cheating. The danger is when the eye can no longer be pleased with an non-manipulated sky, for example, and then the overly dramatic that does not exist in nature becomes the norm.

    • The manipulation of an image is indeed tampering with the moment, but I don’t think that disqualifies it as art. But I do agree with you that too many over-processed skies do create a new norm – which for me doesn’t make a sky more interesting. Most time on the contrary.

  2. Chillbrook says:

    Hello Otto,
    Another very interesting piece and once again very thought provoking. I read Helen C’s comment and I was a little puzzled by it. If it were a documentary photo I might understand a little better but other types of photography, surely an image stands as either one we like or don’t like. We accept do we not that photographs are processed, filters are used on the camera, makeup is put on models.
    The writing analogy is an interesting one but it creates problems. Yes, a photo journalistic documentary photograph has to accurately represent the scene that goes with the story, you can’t Photoshop in extra gunmen in to a scene of conflict however, you can quite easily conceal a provocateur by framing a shot in a certain way, thus creating a dishonest image without having to resort to Photoshop. We rely in these instances on the integrity of the photographer and their professionalism to tell us the truth.
    In my chosen genre, landscape photography, if I use a ND filter on my camera to enhance a sky, use luminosity masks to tweak curves, contrast, colour, does that make my photograph a fiction? I don’t think so. It makes my photograph my creation and interpretation of the landscapes I photograph, it’s how I see them and feel them, my camera takes the picture, captures the moment, I add the emotion and feeling when the shutter was pressed by selectively enhancing certain aspects to tell my story. A RAW file does not adequately represent the moment.
    If I were to add a boat into beach scene would that make my landscape a fiction. Again, I don’t think so. A boat on a beach is something one might expect to see. I might add one if it enhanced my interpretation and if there hadn’t been one there for real when I was there taking my picture. Of course, as happened when this occured in the landscape photographer of the year competition here in the UK, the photographer was disqualified because the rules stated this shouldn’t be done.
    I don’t add things to my images however but I wouldn’t have a moral dilemma in doing so. I occasionally remove rubbish, and other unsightly items from my Photographs. Are these then a fiction? In some ways I guess they are. There are lines here that are very difficult to draw I think. Fiction vs non-fiction is too black and white. Nothing is black and white.
    I’m looking forward to the next installment Otto! 🙂

    • Yes, we do accept that photographs are processed, filters are used on the camera, makeup is put on models – as you point out. But I am talking about degrees. Just because framing a subject in itself is a manipulation doesn’t automatically lead to a conclusion that any manipulations are just fine. The thing with Helen C’s comment is that it goes directly to the fact that between any artist and a viewer there is a contract. The artist promises something and the viewer expects the artist to deliver. If the artist doesn’t deliver or deliver something different, the recipient will be disappointed. It doesn’t mean that an artist should cater for an audience, but it still explains the exchange. And, yes, if you add a boat to your landscape, that makes it into fiction – at least in my eyes. Nothing wrong with that, though, depending on the context. In all kinds of arts the expression is modulated by the artist’s feelings and impressions, that is what makes art so strong. So it is with fiction, but not necessarily with non-fiction. In non-fiction the facts have to be correct, you cannot add a boat if it wasn’t there, but you can indeed conceal a gunmen if you think that isn’t important. As you say it all comes down to integrity. But you are right that the borders aren’t black and white, and that’s exactly why it’s important to discuss the issue so we get an understanding how to draw a line.

      • Bill Benzon says:

        I’d add that, for various reasons, it is physically impossible to a photograph to match the colors and even the geometry of what the eye sees naturally; this is something that the great art historian, Ernst Gombrich, has discussed in the context of painting in his wonderful Art and Illusion. The color that comes straight from the camera simply cannot be the color that was in front of the camera when the picture was taken. And there’s no way to “correct” the color so that it matches what you saw. That, it seems to me, gives you a great deal of latitude in adjusting the color so as to produce a good or pleasing image. And that latitude is all the more reason you need to think carefully about what you’re doing and why.

  3. “But you need to know the rules before you break them, and you need to know why you break them if you do.” This is said about writing fiction all the time. And I believe it to be true.

    • rangewriter says:

      I agree totally with Elen Grey!
      I think you have nailed the big dividing line in photographic genres, like a tree trunk splitting in two: On the one side is the strictly artistic form of photography. On the other side is the photojournalistic form. These mimic the dividing lines between fiction and nonfiction writing, which are often murkily blurred in the form of “creative nonfiction”, a genre that drives me a bit buggy.
      Within those 2 categories are many branches of different genres. There’s news and then there’s advertising and oh, doesn’t that open a can of worms? How many people buy into the altered photos of beautifully enhanced bodies advertising gyms and work-out wonders?
      Within the genre of creative artistic photography, I think the sky is the limit. There are those who stick to very minimal enhancement after the shutter is pressed and their work is to be applauded for its purity. And then there are others who use the full range of digital enhancement tools. I know a lot of people are disturbed by photography that colorizes, combines, layers, and blends images. But I think these are just creative tools for someone with vision to use for expression. Each decision to drop a different sky behind an old barn is a creative moment. EXCEPT if you are trying to sell the barn and then you are using deception which is like a memoir that purposely contorts the truth.
      There is so much to talk and think about in this subject.
      Great debate you’ve touched off, Otto!

    • I believe it goes with any art form, Elen. 🙂

  4. Suzanne says:

    This article makes me think of that iconic WW2 photo ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima’ (said to be the most reproduced photo of all time). While the photo is considered to represent a real event it is actually staged. The real flag raising had occured some hours before but the flag that was raised was too small to photograph well. A second flag raising moment was staged so that the photographers could get a good shot. A case of art imitating life.

    Perhaps the way photos can be so easily manipulated even before the advent of computers should be leading us all to question everything. Images are constantly used to manipulate our thoughts and emotions – advertising is a great example of this.

    • That is another good example. The picture from Iwo Jima wasn’t a manipulated photo done in post-processing, but nevertheless a manipulated photo done at the point of capture. I remember first time learning about the reality of the photo, it was a big disappointment for me. Art always imitates life, but if it’s presented as reality (not the truth, because what is that?) I at least won’t except this kind of manipulation. Computers has indeed not changed the fact that photos have been manipulated through all times, but has made it so much easier.

  5. chrisrenney says:

    I photograph what I see and it represents my interpretation of the world I inhabit. I admire the many beautiful effects people use to change their images but I am quite Bauhausian in my outlook. I do tinker but not a great deal as I like to find objects and subjects which are of themselves interesting and record and present them pretty much as is. Any image taken a split second later will be different as is life. It is an art form, also an anthropological necessity because the human has to evidence it’s existence from cave drawings on.

    • You approach to photography is very admirable. In a way it’s photography in its purest form. But of course it’s not the only way – but a way that works for you.

      • chrisrenney says:

        And thankfully there are many interpretations of photography. It is the essence of image making which is key – our take on the world is always a little be different to another’s. Thank you for replying to my comment.

  6. Patrizia M. says:

    Ho letto con molta attenzione e grande interesse quanto hai scritto e devo dire che la tua semplicità nel porti a persone che come me sono semplici amanti della fotografia e non professionisti (come lo sei tu) mi fa amare ancora di più la scelta che ho fatto, cioè scattare foto a quello che attira la mia attenzione, a ciò che mi trasmette sensazioni e ricordi!! Spero di imparare sempre di più, ho tanta strada da fare ancora, veramente tanta!! Grazie Otto.
    Ciao, Patrizia

    • Sono contento di poter essere di qualche ispirazione per voi. Ma si sa, funziona in entrambi i modi. Ho imparato tanto in queste discussioni come spero tutti gli altri fa. Grazie per le vostre belle parole, Patrizia.

  7. I agree 100% with Helen..Even though I am new to the Photography arena, I know I will never go down the “process-the-hell-out-of-that-shot” road. I have never used Photoshop except to resize and only use Lightroom to make minor tweaks.Honestly, I don’t know enough to make major changes. For me, since this is not my career, I want to photograph reality as I encounter things and for that to be believable, it’s needs to be as close to (SOOC-straight out of camera) as possible.

    Photography only needs to be full of heart..

    (My goal is to have a library of photos (so far it only holds 3 shots) that I will leave behind for my children, grandchildren, etc and so they can see the world through my eyes..Aside from my love, I think that’s almost important gift.)

  8. Gunta says:

    You’ve given us much to think about. I believe it’s essentially about intent. As in writing there needs to be some context. Are you presenting images to duplicate a subject, or is it some form of art? As in writing, journalism requires some attempt to represent the subject as accurately as possible. While fiction allows far more leeway. It brings to mind the expression that “art is in the eye of the beholder”. The manner of creation seems a bit irrelevant.

  9. Angeline M says:

    That photography is not one thing, as you say, is exactly the point. We are each individuals and photograph as such, creating the complete picture as would a painter with an individual style, using color and lines within our creation for a unique creation. Photography would be rather boring if we all did it the very same way.

  10. leecleland says:

    These are very thought provoking posts, Otto. I suppose it was naïve of me but I had always though photos were printed as they were captured in camera, so I can understand Helen C’s dilemma. For nearly 50 years I thought this, being a happy snapper all my life. Only when I started capturing in RAW and using Lightroom and Photoshop did I suddenly understand the difference processing can make to an image. To me post processing is part of what taking a photo includes, getting it right in camera although always the aim, often need tweaking to lead the eye more strongly. I am not a professional but enjoy my photography immensely, and now enjoy manipulating some images into art pieces using what ever is available to create a new image. To me photography is an idea, whether planned beforehand, captured in the moment or developed in post processing.

    • Of course if you print the photos as they are captured by the camera, they are still processed. The camera does the processing instead of the photographer. And I completely agree with you that post-processing is part of the photographic process.

  11. As previously discussed I enjoy manipulating my photography and consider the manipulation art, digital art or a creative process. However I can truly appreciate other’s photos that appear completely untouched, sharp and crisp and equally love them. I think each photo calls for a different process. Some do not require much processing. Others benefit from a lot. I think it depends upon the image and the feeling we are trying to convey.

  12. My Heartsong says:

    Very thoughtful, Otto. I think of how much more I can learn about presenting my blog or photos and how much care I can choose to put into either, presenting a work that is superficial or one that has depth. Either way both writing and photography is worth the journey of learning to see and describe, then enhance to hit home. Nowadays we can edit to make a photo better that wasn’t very good in the first place or we can seek to create the great photo or the great moment in-camera. Usually the difference is apparent. Thank you for helping me to make a promise to myself to be mindful when I look at other’s photography or writing as well as to be discerning of what I am aiming for.

  13. Mike Lempert says:

    Because of technology, many professions have changed and some have become more complicated – some have gone away entirely. I am happy that the door to photography has opened to new possibilities. I am typically an old traditionalist, but not so much in regard to photography. I caution attempts to narrow definitions when the technology is expanding. However, I do have my limits to what I think is appropriate and that will show in my work and in what I choose to appreciate in others’ work. It is generally obvious when something is beyond real, and those images will be appreciated, or not, for what they are. All the great artists had their own styles and used the tools available to them. I’m sure painters didn’t consider photography art when it first came about. Had Ansel Adams not employed his techniques in the darkroom, would his images have had the same effect on our senses? Would his name be recognizable today? I am all in favor of using the tools available to us to create images that we believe are the best we can make – to compensate for the limitations of film or sensors, to burn or dodge, or even to clone out an annoying twig that catches the eye. Our work will be judged by our audience and some will succeed and many will fail, but again, believability will be an important factor. Some photographers will gain recognition and others will be forgotten – I believe that is the process for defining what is photography.

    • I hope you don’t get me wrong; I do believe that a photographer should use all the tools available to create images as good and as true to oneself as possible. But I also believe that how far you can go have to be see in the context of how the photograph is going to be used.

  14. Reblogged this on Jackie's Travels and commented:
    Love this

  15. YellowCable says:

    I think your last paragraph concludes this topic well – “Photography has to be seen in context. And photography is not one thing; it’s an array of different forms and expressions.”

    I guess this likes everything else that sometimes or often times there is no real clear cut between things.

  16. Dawnasong says:

    This all seems so rigid! I really don’t have a great knowledge of photography; however, I love art. I also love Adobe photoshop. I love color and beauty. Everytime I capture a landscape the color I see is more brilliant than the photo actually revails. I see the world more colorful than it actually is. I use adobe to bring the photo into sequence with my perspective. I love beauty but I think I like breaking the rules more. ~°•○☆~laughs~☆○•°~ Most of all I love thinking outside the box! It frees me! “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” And
    your photography is absolutely fabulous Otto. Thanks for sharing your perspective maybe I can learn what the rules are?
    (Never mind) I just feel compelled to break them÷)

    • I do not see this as rigid. You choose whatever approach you want to. I see absolutely no wrong in using Photoshop – I do so myself, of course. But if you want to write a haiku you will have to limit yourself to three lines or if you want to write a sonnet you will have to follow a very clear structure of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a defined rhyme scheme. If you don’t care you simply don’t follow these rules, but then you cannot call your poem a haiku or a sonnet. Likewise it is with photography.

      • Dawnasong says:

        Sorry, I may have misunderstood. I look for beauty, uniqueness and quality. In my perspective that’s art, and art has no definites or boundaries. Art is always changing/evolving. Our world, our universe, are definitions of all things continue to change, and so it is with photography.
        That’s why I liked your photography, it is absolutely beautiful and unique.

        • You haven’t necessarily misunderstood, and I think your perspective on art; looking for beauty, uniqueness and quality is as good as anyone’s. And I agree, art as such and in the broadest sense has no limitations or boundaries, but if you choose one specific genre there are still boundaries that define that genre. Which again of course can and should be broken. Thanks for the nice words.

          • Dawnasong says:

            Wait, I do want to understand. What kind of photography is your style?

            • In most cases I work in the documentary tradition, which applies quite a few restrictions on what is acceptable when it comes to both manipulation at the time of capture and during the post processing.

              • Dawnasong says:

                I took a black & white photography class in 1984. It was a lot of fun. That is actually my only experience with that type of photography. I love your photography and your articles. You’re a great teacher.
                Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  17. Patti Kuche says:

    Otto, I am rushing in to reply here without having read the previous comments yet (lack of time) but I have been enjoying very much your previous discussions on this topic and very much agree with Helen C’s disappointment on the actuality of certain photos. Whether art or documentary, the basis of any work of art for me is it’s truth, the honesty of the work.
    I remember many years ago seeing some of the Cecil Beaton’s darkroom instructions for portraits of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother – they were a breathtaking scribble from the hands of what I call Photoshop’s Grandpa. Not for nothing was he her favourite photographer!
    And yet, in the ordinariness of collecting memories and family snaps, I have so many memories of family smiles for the camera, forced smiles and poses, while knowing the reality was so much more stretched.
    Are we out there with our cameras searching to document the honesty of life, and if so, whose version of the truth?
    Keep up your excellent work in the pursuit!

    • Your reference to family snaps and how they don’t necessarily give any indication of how the situation actually was it very interesting. This only shows how a photograph can never tell the truth, but will be more or less deceptive, depending on the photographer and his or her intentions. For that reason I almost never use the word truth when discussing photography. But I believe in the honesty of the work as you phrase it.

  18. Vicki says:

    To say photography does not need a philosophical discussion is like saying I’m not interested in what the Photographer is trying to say (well, to me anyway). I’m fascinated by the way people’s minds work and why they do (what they do). I do a lot of thinking about life and how we react to situations or people. Some photographic images are ’emotional’ and make me cry.

    Certainly photojournalism should be about telling the truth. But what is the truth? Is it twisted and mangled bodies after a tsunami/earthquake? Or is it the haunting eyes of the orphaned children who lost their whole family? Is it firemen and rescuers searching collapsed building rubble? Or is it the treeless wasteland? Or is it long lines of people queueing for a bottle of water and bowl of emergency rations in a refugee camp? They are all truth and reality, but the variation comes from what the photographer sees and wants to share with the rest of the world. He/she makes images from the heart, which have emotional impact. Photojournalists want images to create a visual story/interpretation of their written words.

    We are all unique in this world and in my mind there is not necessarily any right or wrong, only different ways and reasons for doing things. I’m interested in the differences. I dislike what are clearly post processed over-saturated sunset images (even though I’ve shot some spectacular colour in Melbourne sunsets in myself, so know that some sunsets are unreal), but if sunsets that have been heavily post processed is what the general population wants to buy, then in order to make money in that genre, that’s what some photographers have to do. Perhaps they might even make images they don’t necessarily like themselves (in order to make a living from Photography).

    There are ‘happy snaps’ or stunning fine art. But what I call ‘stunning’ may be completely different to what someone else puts in that category. Amazing images speak to me. They tell a story and draw my eyes into the frame. But I also like to hear the story behind the image. I like to read what made the photographer make that particular image (of that particular subject).

    I like the small details, whereas some viewers like the overall picture. They want a quick flash and then to move on. If I like a photo, I prefer to linger and move around the image seeking all its parts. I’m interested in why that image appeals and what individual details speak (to me).

    I don’t think post processing can make a really bad photo better, but it can enhance certain qualities of a good photo. The more blogs I follow, the more I see how other people view the world around them. They’re all different.

    • You have written a very poignant comment, Vicki, one that could have been a post of its own – and one which I totally agree with. In the end we all see the world differently – and exactly that difference is what makes any expression so interesting. We can agree or disagree, but in that tension lies new insight and new ideas. Thanks for a great and very thoughtful comment.

  19. Inge says:

    Very well said, Otto.
    I agree with what you’ve said that we must or need to know the rules before breaking them and photography has to bee seen in context. That’s the point I think, IMHO. 🙂

  20. As you say, Otto, it very much depends on the genre. In documentary photography excessive manipulation – i.e. anything that changes the meaning or context of the shot – is obviously out of the question. The manipulation doesn’t even have to go so far as to manipulate the picture extensively. As HCB famously insisted upon: Even the crop is a form of manipulation and after having his pictures distorted by his editors many times, he required the editors to print the pictures with the frame boarder to prevent this manipulation.

    I myself mostly do candid street photography. Recently I showed a few of my pictures to a friend of mine, who happens to be an art history professor. He immediately asked whether they are candid or not. I said “I only do candid stuff …” and he said “That’s what all street photographers say, right?”. I laughed and said “Well, if you have to know, I’m actually too lazy to stage shots”. Similarly, extensive editing takes time and I shoot way too much to spend a lot of time on the editing. And to be honest, I find editing mind-numbingly boring. So, in the end the morality is already inscribed in my own daily practice of photography – I don’t feel like I have the time to resort to dodgy stuff. I just don’t see why I should resort to such practices in any case, when in my genre it’s much easier for me to just wait for the shots to happen in front of my camera.

    I guess photographers who work a lot for the press and have huge time constraints, maybe even a necessity to perform being the only photographer on the event for a certain newspaper for example sometimes resort to manipulating their shots in subtle ways out of sheer necessity. On some level I understand, but it doesn’t make it right. For independent documentary photographers who work without any time constraints this is an entirely different story though. There it’s not even understandable and entirely out of the question.

    As always, a very interesting and thought provoking article, Otto!

    • I would even extend what HCB pointed out and say that any framing is in itself a manipulation. So in the end it all comes down to degrees of manipulations, don’t it!? Street photography is one genre that really depends on getting it right at the moment of capture, but one can still post-process the end result to death. You choose not to, which I think is great. You have found your way which works for you and your temperament.

  21. Phil Lanoue says:

    As I approach my particular area of photography (wildlife) from a photojournalistic view point, I try to stress that there is a big difference between a photo and a photo illustration. Once you start changing out backgrounds and inserting objects it’s no longer a photograph.

    • I agree with you in that there is a big difference between a photo and a photo illustration. But I don’t agree with you in that the latter is no longer a photograph. One does not exclude the other – in my mind.

  22. I love the photograph with this post. I also want to say, I have to admire your explanation of art and the professionalism needed to pursue your art as you do. What happens in your trade completely happens correspondingly in mine.

  23. Stephen Kane says:

    A wonderful entry with thoughtful rejoinders, in a never-ending, but always necessary, discussion. I’ll look forward to coming back.

  24. hi otto,
    thought provoking article. i share the opinion that there is no right or wrong in the two approaches, both are art and creativity forms an it depends on which direction one wishes to pursue or take its craft. i would also broadly categorize the two into two categories (i) the traditional purist photographer and (ii) the creative graphic photographer. (i) tends to lean and rely on its photographic skills and technique to capture the moment/scene i.e. lighting, composition, planning, etc. perfectly in that instant whereas (ii) may fall short and tend to lean and rely on digital processing to compensate. Having said that, camera film/sensor technology today still have difficulty matching/mimicking the human eye dynamic range and how it and the brain process vision. Therefore, digital processing is godsend in this respect to help us bridge the divide in some way when the situation warrants it but perhaps not to the extend where we blur the line between factual and fiction, especially in subjects where factual integrity needs to be preserved.

    • I agree with you in the way you categorize the two main groups. And you have another good point, that no camera will be able to see the world in the same way as we human beings do. Thus the need for interpretation.

  25. filmstruck says:

    To me, photography complements my travels and I want my photographs to reflect exactly what I saw. So the beauty lies in the eye of the photographer and whatever tools she has at her disposal at the time of the photograph being taken. In that sense, the camera, the lens, the settings, a flash, a filter all are acceptable. But once the photo leaves the camera and gets onto a computer, the moment for manipulation has passed. I do post process my photos, primarily for cropping or b/w conversion, adding frames perhaps. More than that is no longer photography, its digital artistry, which is art nevertheless. My two cents! Thanks for dropping by my blog! 🙂

    • And thank you for doing the same here. The interesting question here – as far as I see it – is where the border between what you call photography and digital artistry lies. You say you do post processing, but how far is too far? Is increasing the contrast still within the realm of photography? Or what about enhancing saturation? Or blurring the background?

      • filmstruck says:

        Difficult questions all. But doesn’t it come down to what the person wishes to achieve? I’d think those who are passionate about the camera and its craft would not dream of blurring the background later on their laptops. But those who only wish to make an image, and think of it as an art form whose tools are the laptop and a photo manipulation software, instead of the camera or film, may choose to completely transform the rather simplistic shot they took. The only thing I’d insist upon is for full disclosure. It’s not cheating until you try to pass off a post-processed picture as SOOC, without clearly calling out your operation on it.

        • I totally agree with you about full disclosure. If a photographer won’t say anything about how a photo came into being how it is, then it’s too fishy for me. Nothing wrong with a total makeover if you are open about it.

  26. Helen C says:

    First, I want to point out that I have nothing against editing photographs. As a matter of fact, I am trying to learn those skills myself.
    I’ve noticed one blogger that whenever he posted a photo that was heavily edited, he would say so. Do I love his heavily edited photo less? No. Do I respect this blogger less when he did this? No. In fact, the amount of “like”, “respect” and “admire” are the same (maybe more, depends on the photo), but instead of admiring his skill of using his camera and his being able to see the beauty with his eyes, in this case, I admire his creativity, imagination, being able to use the editing tool effectively… etc. I want to appreciate someone’s work for the right reason, that’s all.
    Call it “artistic form of photography” or “my interpretation” or “creative photographing”… (I like to call it “photograph plus”) clearly, many of us realize that it is difficult to use the word “photograph” alone to cover both heavily-edited photograph and minimum-edited photograph.
    One may ask where to draw the line. My personally opinion is: tweaking is ok, but alternating should be called something else – maybe “artistic form of photography” or “my interpretation” or “creative photographing”, “digital art”… etc. If the best photographer, using the best camera can not produce the photograph you have created, I would think it is a “photograph plus” (using my own term). For example, if the “white balance” is not set right, the color of your photo may not look as good. But those who know how to set “white balance” take the picture at the same place, same time, would produce a photo in better color. In my opinion, it is ok to tweak your photo to achieve the same result. But if a chair is not there, no matter how good the photographer is, he can not produce a photo that has the chair in it (again, taking the photo at the same time, same place), then I would prefer it to be called a “photograph plus”.
    Why is it important to distinguish the two? For me, I don’t want to mislead viewers. For example, if I am in the mood of painting the sky green and it turns out to be an excellent photo, which I truly like. If a viewer saw my “photograph” and fell in love with the green sky and decide to fly 1000 miles to see it himself, I feel I am responsible for his disappointment. (I know this is an extreme example…)
    I have thought that maybe we can handle the whole situation by educating our viewers. If we make them aware that every photograph they see could be a result of heavy-editing, we may not have to worry about misleading. But putting a question mark in their head for every photo they see – is this fair for those documentary photographers?
    Being an introvert, writing and posting this comment make me a little (a lot?) uncomfortable. I want all of you to know that I respect your opinion and thanks for letting me share mine. I have learned my lesson: before I heavily invest my emotion (or money to fly 1000 miles to see a green sky), I would find out the truth.

    • Many good points here, Helen. For instance you say you want to admire someone’s work for the right reasons. That’s the contract between the artist and viewer I was talking about in the comment to Chillbrook’s comment. Because there is nothing wrong with post processing and manipulation as long as the viewer knows it. It has to do – as you point out – with not misleading the viewer.

  27. Lisa Gordon says:

    As with so many things, it is simply not clear cut.
    A very thought-provoking follow-up.
    Thank you, Otto.

  28. Dalo 2013 says:

    Great post Otto, and eye opening as well as while I heard that W. Eugene Smith manipulated his photos, I thought it was of the common type (dodging and burning)… When I began to understand all of the manipulation done in the digital world, it really affected me negatively ~ as I simply did not like it, felt cheated somehow. How things have changed for me, as what I enjoy is the finished product and if there is something I find fascinating in the photo, I may wonder how it is done but I will not question the magic that created it. Questioning it will never lead to a clear answer for me, and that is a neat mystery. I do miss the idea of creating magic in a literal darkroom, but evolution is a good thing.

    • It’s an interesting transition, don’t you think – from feeling cheated to embrace the digital possibilities? But I agree with should not take the magic away, but I also believe photographers shouldn’t cheat. If a photographer is into heavy manipulation, be open about – and it’s all good. I also agree with you in that evolution is a good thing.

  29. Moving house and haven’t had a lot of time to read/respond to the observations you bring forward. Until now. You talk about the art of photography, Otto, and I translate your words in to the “art of art”. The genres/categories you speak of relate just as well to artistic style or interpretation in-dependent upon medium.
    Set aside the technical for one moment. Important to mention: integrity of the work; honest process and truth of skill.
    You share words that instill belief that making art remains important.
    R.

  30. I agree with you so completely! Context (genre) definitely matters. If the photo is purely an artwork, that puts a very different spin on the issue of editing than if the photo is for reporting purposes. The analogy with writing is very apt.

  31. Bill Benzon says:

    I just found out about your blog, so this is the only post I’ve read. But, YES, the issues you raise are important, all the more so now that everyone is taking pictures with their smart phones. As I said in a post, What’s Photography About, Anyhow?, at my own blog:

    Things turned serious when I decided to pursue graffiti and got my trusty Pentax SLR. There the issue was: how do I photograph graffiti? I read advice that said to photograph it straight-on and four-square, no fancy stuff. That is, photograph it as though it were a painting hanging on a wall, any wall, somewhere. The focus is on the graffiti, not on what you as a photographer can do with a camera.

    Fair enough. The trouble, though, is that graffiti isn’t hanging on any just wall. It’s not hanging at all; it’s painted directly on this or that particular wall. So that particular space becomes part of the experience of the graffiti. Context is important. Further, graffiti is often quite large so that moving back and forth, in and out, is part of your experience. All of this calls for context shots, and not just one or two, and detail shots of various scales. And what about time of day and season of the year?

    At this point photographing graffiti is no longer so simple. It now calls on one’s powers of imagination and invention, one’s skills as a maker of images. That is, there is the graffiti writer’s skills, and there are your skills. What’s the (proper) relationship between the two?

    I could go on and on about these issues, and have done so here and there at my blog. But I won’t.

    • Your example about photographing graffiti is but just one that shows how important it is to be conscious about why and how you photograph what you photograph – at least if you are interested in more than happy snapshots. Thanks for sharing your experience, Bill.

  32. Bill Benzon says:

    It just occurred to me, as an extreme example consider some of the images NASA produces. While some of them come out of optical telescopes, and so are colored in the usual way, many of them use energies outside the spectrum of visible light – x-ray, infrared, various radio frequencies. And yet those images are often presented in color, color that had to be supplied in processing since it simply isn’t there in the image itself. While I can imagine that some of the images are colored for PR purposes, most of them are not. Most of the false color is added for scientific purposes, to make structure in the image more visible to the eye. Of course the people who do this and who use the images know exactly what they are doing and why.

    That seems to me crucial in all image-making, knowing just what you are doing and why you’re doing it.

  33. Melimelo says:

    I really enjoyed this post and the comments are also very interesting. I do not like to manipulate my photos. However, I do not dismiss the work of others who do as long as their work is not photojournalism. Art is the expression of an artist and an artist can choose whatever ways he/she finds to express himself/herself. If I like a work of art, I will probably want to know how it was made to satisfy my curiosity not to reject it.

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  35. I have just read both your posts on this subject, and am truly fascinated by the debate and points you raise.

    As a person who manipulates all of my photographs to create artwork, I have often wondered how to best describe what I do. At the moment Im using the term ‘Creative Photography’ but I’m not 100% sure if that’s an accurate assumption. Lately Ive been considering ‘Artography’ but wonder if people would know what that means.

    I admire honest photography showing the natural beauty of our world, however im fairly certain that all photography must be tweaked in some way. Also, consider the portrait photographer who gets a person to pose in a specific way. Whilst it is them, we cant really describe that as a truly accurate portrayal of the person – more it represents an ideal of them. In the end I cant help wondering if there is any real difference when compared to photo-art.

    All of it is fine with me, except for one exception e.g. If I were selling my car, I would have to photograph it naturally without cloning out blemishes etc. This is the morally right thing to do.

    I could easily mull over this question forever and not reach a conclusion. Brilliant post Otto, I look forward to more of your debates. 🙂

    • Thanks for your elaborate and interesting answer, Amanda. I totally agree with you in that all photography not only must be but is tweaked. Even if the photographer doesn’t think so, the camera in itself has been programmed to tweak every single image it captures. So for me the discussion is not so much whether to tweak or not, but how much is tolerable in different genres. In art you can do anything you fancy, but, no, when selling a car you can only do a minimal amount of processing as you point out. But I don’t think that is the only instance where there are ethical considerations with respect to how much tweaking is acceptable.

  36. disperser says:

    I’ll try and keep this short, expanding only a little on what I said before.

    To me it seems you are still talking about two different things. One is the tool, and the other is what one does with it.

    If one bemoans what Eugene Smith did with his photographs, they are not really pissed off at photography. They are pissed off at being mislead by the communicator. The fact he used photography to communicate his lies does not taint the tool, at least not to my view.

    So, again, I don’t see this as a discussion about photography and its related processes (from setting up shots to post-processing them) as much as what the person does with them. Now, if you want to restrict the discussion to what documentary photography should be, I’ll concede we can discuss the definition of it, but that a subset of a larger subject. The objections you seem to raise have to do more with what people do with the tool as oppose to the tool itself, so, again, I don’t understand the discussion focusing on what can be done with photography, or even with photoshop.

    I expect a journalist not to lie; not with his words, not with photography, not by willful omissions (or inclusion), and so on.

    At no time to I bemoan the tools used by people who lie to me. Nearly all tools can be used for purposes beyond their original intent.

    I might as well fret about how a hammer was misused not to construct a home, but to bash someone’s head in. That’s what I meant with my comment about philosophy – I don’t see the point about a philosophical discussion of the hammer. We can certainly have a technical discussion, pondering which end of the head would be most effective (I think the claw end would do more damage, then again it would be localized, whereas the flat portion may better spread the energy to adjacent areas), but discussing the fact the design of the hammer enables one to use it as a weapon holds little interest, at least to me.

    . . . or maybe I’m just too simple-minded to get the nuances, even after reading all the comments. Dense, some might say.

    • I don’t care to discuss how tools can be misused, either – not for the sake of discussing. Yes a hammer can be used to kill a person – and so can a camera. But that’s not what I am talking about here, is it? And I am not really interested in discussing tools at some general – or to use your word; a philosophical – level. But to me tools dictate our expression – or they set the boundaries for our expression. And that is what I am trying to discuss here. How we use the tools of photography in our photographic expression. The two are intertwined. I agree with you, you cannot taint a tool, only how it’s used. And that is the bottom line: When do we use a camera in an inappropriate way – photographically? To me the answer depends on the genre. So you can’t taint a tool, but it is important to understand how a tool functions to be able to use it in a way that is agreeable with whatever kind of expression you are going for. For instance accepting that a “camera doesn’t lie” ins’t really the case – as was believe in its early days – makes a big difference how we approach photography. So, you are right, it wasn’t Eugene Smith’s camera that was lying, but they way he used it – if one agrees to call what he did a lie.

      • disperser says:

        My initial response was prompted by this:

        “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.”

        That set up the discussion of the tool more than how it’s used. You bemoaned the fact that one can present a photoshop creation as indistinguishable from a photograph. You are right in saying that is not photography, but even then, it’s the person who is misrepresenting the image that we should discuss.

        If that was your intent, then perhaps a better title would be “How photography is used to mislead people”.

        The question you asked:

        “I have been pondering over what photography is. I mean really is.”

        is not the same as the question in your response above:

        “When do we use a camera in an inappropriate way – photographically?”

        The latter is totally in line with the discussion. I apologize for misinterpreting what you were asking.

        • No need to apologize. We are discussing – open minded I believe – without necessarily agreeing. I believe in the dialectic process, so I appreciate your comments, even if I don’t agree with all you say. And just to comment you last point: I am not only discussing inappropriate use of camera, it’s only part of it – at least that is my intention.

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  38. Elina says:

    I always really enjoy reading your thoughts Otto and I like the idea of thinking about the concept of photography and all things related. I think it helps to understand the meaning of our work. Like you say we all have a different idea and purpose for the photos we take. On my photography course many teachers stressed that objective photos do not exist. I feel that’s the way it really is. Even in documentary photography the photographer decides and chooses which moments to capture… and we don’t know what happened just before or after it. The photo shown to others will not tell the whole truth of the situation that took place. I like the idea that every artist brings out and stresses the things that they feel strongly about in the photo and want to draw the viewer’s attention to. Post processing should help to do that, but not change the photo completely into something else. But of course, there is a time and place for that kind of processing also. 🙂

  39. I’m sorry but I’m late here. Many interesting ideas both from your words and from the comments. A lot of things to elaborate. Being personally in the process to make more clear or defined my relationship with photography and maybe trying new ways I find all very useful, great inputs. But I need some time to “digest” everything. I’ll give my view when ready which can take some time 🙂
    robert

  40. A thought provoking follow-up post and some very interesting comments! Nothing wrong in adding a boat to your landscape but when the scene shown didn’t happen it becomes computer art 🙂 And this can not be compared with leaving out an object while composing a photograph. But yes it is very, very difficult to have a clear cut distinction.

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  42. Jim Hughes says:

    Sorry to be so late, but my wife, the internet maven in the family, didn’t find your blog until last night. Since my book, W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance, seems to be integral to this interesting discussion, I thought I’d add a few of Gene Smith’s own thoughts on the matter, beginning with a tape he made (he seemed to tape everything and everyone at one point in his life!) when he met Aileen Mioko, the young woman who would accompany him to Minamata Japan, and become his second wife. At this first meeting, she was serving as a translator for a film crew from Japan that had come to New York City to photograph Gene (and Bert Stern) for a Fuji color film commercial to be shown on television in Japan. During a preliminary interview, Gene showed Aileen a number of his photographs, carefully explaining why and how he made them. From my book:

    “Gene described the making of his ‘Mad Eyes’ photograph from Haiti. He told how, over a period of months after taking it, he had reinterpreted in the darkroom the original scene, gradually making it darker, eliminating extraneous people and elements. Finally, Gene said, he bleached the subject’s eyes, revealing them as windows to the terror of being imprisoned in one’s own mind. ‘All these years that I have been taking pictures, professionally and for publication,’ Gene offered, ‘I have not developed calluses on my heart, and I think maybe I am more tender of heart now than I was in the beginning. As I have watched people within their hurts and their joys, the waves that they are feeling hit me the same way.

    ” ‘Somehow I want to convey that, not just the physical surface.’

    ” ‘So this is the way you saw it,’ Aileen asked.

    ” ‘This is the way I see it,’ Gene replied. ‘This is the way I feel it.’ ”

    In 1995, six years after the biography was published, I wrote a long piece for Mike Johnston’s Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques magazine (subsequently retitled Photo Techniques). The article was titled “Dancing in the Dark: the Real Darkroom Secrets of W. Eugene Smith.” In it, I detailed some of the manipulations mentioned earlier in this blog. “The issues Gene Smith confronted were large, and often in conflict,” I wrote. “Life and death. Innocence and experience. Love and hate. Good and evil. Black and white. Could human values continue to prevail under the unrelenting press of progress? Should a journalist dedicated to facts allow himself to make art — with all its implied manipulations — in the pursuit of higher truths?

    “…Gene said that his objective was to transmit to his readers the experience of living. To do that, he believed, required him to achieve increasingly heightened levels of awareness.

    “…For Smith, an amateur magician in his youth, the real craft of photography had always been the art of illusion. ‘The repetitive effort of revision done for the purpose of improving the ultimate result is frequently criticized when it is applied to photography,’ he wrote in 1953, ‘while with a writer, or composer, or any other artist, it would be lauded or ignored.’

    “…That Gene Smith the artist on occasion took liberties that were not available to Gene Smith the photojournalist is beyond dispute. Did the ends justify the means? He did, after all, produce many memorable images that have outlived their original contexts. We remember Smith photographs, less for the specific people and events they may originally have described than for what they say now about all people and the fabric of life itself. In that sense, Smith’s photographs transcend time and place — and the best of them are imbued not only with authority, but enormous power. They move us….

    “But the ethical questions refuse to go away. W. Eugene Smith made his living, and his substantial reputation, as a photojournalist, a calling in which fact has always taken precedence over fiction. In this supposedly objective endeavor, Smith invariably took a subjective stance. Indeed, he often became so involved with the lives he was photographing that he would step across the threshold of the picture frame and into the dramas that were unfolding before his lens. Where the accepted approach in photojournalism has been for the photographer to put himself or herself into the reader’s place, Smith found ways to project himself into his subject’s place.

    “…’Tomoko in Her Bath’ [a memorable photograph of a mother and her mercury damaged child, whose only manipulation was the use of a small electronic flash held by Aileen to supplement window light in a bathing chamber] would be the last important photograph made by W. Eugene Smith in a lifetime defined by important photographs. ‘SUBJECTIVITY IS NOT A CRIME,’ he printed large in one of his Minamata notebooks.”

    – Jim Hughes

    • Thank you for an elaborate comment, Jim. I very much appreciate you taking your time to bring new thoughts to the discussion. They add valuable elements to it and not the least valuable insight to Gene Smith’s struggle between him being an artist and him being a photojournalist. I very much follow Smith’s thought that the objective for a photojournalist is to transmit to his or her readers the experience of living. I also very agree with your statement that Smith’s photographs transcend time and place. I for one surely have all these images you mention here in this comment clear in my mind as with so many other pictures of his I have come to admire. But the ethical question still remains, doesn’t it – where does fiction take over for fact and where is that borderline where it cannot any longer be considered factual reporting? I do believe that subjectivity is not a crime – but as an artist or a reporter one need to be open about it. Anyway the idea of subjective versus objective reporting has changed quite a bit since your book was published – and hardly anyone believes in the latter any more. Again thank you for sharing your knowledge about Gene Smith.

  43. E.D. says:

    interesting post. I am self taught. I don’t earn a living from photography and my gear is only a bridge camera. (cannon power shot) I love flowers first and then photography – perhaps i would be encouragement to do more with photography, if i had an audience to please. I don’t. My humble efforts on word press are posted for myself only.. That they are seen by a few is okay with me. I just don’t want to get caught up with what is right and wrong. It would spoil the simple pleasure of just snapping away. My blog ain’t going be a show -stopper anyway. Thanks for your comment ummmm, oh! i don’t get comments, but i do have a few likes. 😉 eve thanks again.

    • I would say just keep doing what you already do. There is no right or wrong. Enjoy photographing the way you see things. And keep blogging. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Eve.

  44. ~meredith says:

    Excellent articles. I especially enjoy this one, as your points and arguments bring attention to subtleties often difficult to convey.

    Lovely reads. Meredith

  45. Pingback: Accidental Works of Art | In Flow

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