Photography is under rapid development, as is the concept of what photography is. What it once used to be is no longer true; neither is how we once perceived photography. There is really no such thing as one truth. What we conceive as true is not absolute, is changing with changing times and changing from one person to another. Just think about the notion «a camera never lies.» Who believes in this anymore? Or the idea of objective reporting; that has long gone, too – at least for most of us.
Ever new developments in photography challenge the whole concept of photography. It opens up for new creative choices – is creativity in and of itself. With it comes a new way of seeing photography; old myths are buried and new understanding brought into life. That is what creativity means. Creativity is an act of defiance. You are challenging status quo. You are questioning accepted truth and principles. As a creator yourself, you are asking three universal questions that mock the conventional wisdom: «Why do I have to obey rules?» «Why can’t I be different?» «Why can’t I do it my way?» These are the impulses that guide all creative people whether they admit it or not. Every act of creation is also an act of destruction and abandonment. Something has to be cast aside to make way for the new.
So when I in my two posts The Heart of Photography and What Does It Matter! have discussed what photography is and what this understanding implicates as for how we can use photography to express our creativity I acknowledge the fact that we all see it differently; that what one person easily can accept, is out of the question for another person. But in the process of discussing how we see photography and what we tolerate within the realm of photography, hopefully we become wiser and are able to broaden our understanding. My aim is certainly not to tell anyone to stop processing a photo till it has become something totally different than what was captured, but I ask to question when and how far is OK in a given context. This much said; in a broad and fundamental discussion as this one it’s easy to get sidetracked, and to some extent we ended up debating a little too much what is acceptable or not in documentary photography. It’s an important question, but as I have written a couple of times already; all different genres require different approach to how photography is used – not only when it comes to documentary photography.
With any given genre comes a contract. It’s not a written contract – certainly not written in stone, but a contract nevertheless; a contract between the creator and the recipient. This not only goes for photography but applies to any creative and/or expressive form. When a writer, for example, establishes the genre he or she works in, you, the reader, agree to its terms. It’s a contract between the two of you. A humorist promises to make you laugh. A thriller writer promises to create evil and then conquer it. A mystery writer promises to build a murderous maze and then show you the way out. A romance novelist promises to make you cry. You feel gypped when the author breaks the contract.
It’s the same with photography. With photography, though, the genres are vaguer and not as clearly defined as in literature. But I think most can see that a textbook photograph will be different than an avant-garde photography, that an advertisement photograph will be different than a family photograph. The contract between the photographer and the viewer will be different for the different types of photography. As for these genres I will not try to define them or even list them. It would turn into a boring monologue, and in end become a discussion about what is and what is not and how to define. My point is only to point to the fact that photography as a form of expression does not have a uniform representation.
I will round up this discussion, tough, trying to classify a couple of distinct groups of photographic expression – not genres, but major divisions of photography based on differences in their inherent visual language and how the photographic processes itself govern the end result. These are the categories of photography I would like to propose: Classical Photography, Authentic Digital Photography, Open Digital Photography and Computer Generated Photography.
In many ways the classification is obvious. But allow me to indulge just a bit – and discus a little bit the different qualities. Classical Photography I see as any photograph that has been captured with and output on light-chemical sensitive material; that is traditional film and prints that have to be chemically developed. A classical photograph may have been captured with or without a camera. The expressive qualities of Classical Photography lie in its rich and subtle tones that digital photography is still not able to quite reproduce. On the other hand sharpness is inferior compared to digital photography. But maybe more important than the inherent technical qualities in Classical Photography is how the photographic process in itself affects the expression. Because the photographer cannot instantly (with the exception of Polaroids) see the result, there is a much stronger awareness as to getting it right and to be able to control the result beforehand. It forces a more deliberate expression compared to when you know you can always fix it later – even more so with slide film than with negative film. In addition film and developing is expensive, thus the photographer can’t shoot unlimited amounts of frames. This also enforces awareness and alertness that creates an immediacy and intensity that is quite unique for analogue photography.
Authentic Digital Photography is obviously captured with some kind of electronic image sensor, the way most people photograph these days. The authentic addition goes to show that this is unmanipulated – but not unprocessed – photography. That is to say that no pixels have been removed, added or exchanged from the time of capture. The objects you see in an authentic digital photograph were there when it was taken. Otherwise they may have been altered in appearance due to processing – to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the genre. The qualities that relate to digital photography go to incredible sensitivity. It is possible to photograph in almost any kind of light, even in almost complete darkness, and get the colours right. But the digital sensor handles contrast less gracious than analogue film. Otherwise digital photography is much more forgiving because you can always alter most anything after the fact in the post processing. It may make the photographer less sharp in the moment of capture, but also indulge her or him to take more risks. The fact that in reality there are no limitations on how many frames can be taken frees up the photographer – but at the same time makes him or her less alert. All this influence the final expression of digital photograph compared to an analogue photograph taken by the same photographer at the same time.
Open Digital Photography only differs from Authentic Digital Photography in that it’s free for complete manipulations. The photographer may composite, add new layers of pixel or remove, add or exchange pixel to his or her like or dislike. Most of the qualities discussed for the previous category are valid for Open Digital Photography. There is one distinction, though. Whereas the former capture and show life as it unfold the latter may combine and create new «realities» from scratch. One isn’t better or worse than the other, but the result is quite different. In the first case the photographer is limited to whatever happens in reality which brings about a feeling of authenticity while that is not a limitation for the second case. In Open Digital Photography you may be able to play more with direct emotional expressions.
Computer Generated Photography doesn’t need much explanation I think. It’s all images created on a computer. The quality of this type of photography is related to unlimited possibilities to create new and different worlds – as long as the photographer has the money and the knowledge to do so. Not even the sky is then the limit. What it suffers under is more than anything the lack of unpredictability that rules real life. And it’s hard to get that rough, rugged and cluttered look that characterizes reality. Real life is just so richer than anything created on a computer can match. Computer Generated Photography looks too clean – and thus not real. That’s why it’s used in car advertisement – to make cars look better than real – and not in portraits.
I hope you have enjoyed this discussion – and I would love to have more comments on the categorizing I have outlined here. I understand that there is a gradual transition between them, for instance is it possible to photograph on film and scan the result for a digital output or one could add a computer generated photograph to a photograph of something from the real world. But nevertheless I think no matter how you divide anything you will find this kind of gradual transition.
Now I look forward to reading your response.