At the End of the Rainbow


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.


82 thoughts on “At the End of the Rainbow

  1. You put a lot of thought and effort in to this, and I appreciate that. I like the idea of the contract and the comparison to other media, with their inherent contracts. I guess you could keep going with categories – as you mentioned, documentary, advertising, fine art, the family or vacation “snapshot” etc.

      1. It seems to me that the four categories the you’ve have proposed, Otto, have to do with the (implicit) contract between the photographer and the viewer. Categories such as landscape, portrait, wild animal, flower, etc. have to do with subject matter; one could conceivable produce such photos under any of the four contracts. The notion of portraiture conventionally implies representation of real people and so portraits done under the open digital contract could become problematic. Adding a hat in digital production may be OK, but changing eye color would not be. And documentary photography pretty much implies the classical and authentic digital contracts, though those can be and have been stretched quite a bit.

        1. You are right in all what you write, bill. I have tried to categorize photography with respect to the contract with the viewers – but also with and eye to the different expressions that separates each category. And, yes, different genres or subject groups could easily fit into more than one of the categorize I suggest. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter.

  2. Fantastic discussions!! I really do like how you classify photography into these 4 categories. They help make certain context much clearer when discuss about creativity and limits within each. Great posts!

  3. “. . . when and how far is OK in a given context . . .”

    I have answered that question many times now, and that response is; “when I feel like it (you could change it up any way you prefer like, ‘When it suites my sensibilities and/or purpose,’ and so on)!”

    The ethics of all photography fields, forms and genres are more subjective now than ever, and there is nothing — no law, no convention, no nothing that can clearly and adequately; without the slight doubt, direct how far or short one pushes the envelope (for just one consideration: We are simply left with our opinions and discretions, and hope that we do no harm in the process whether we intend to or not.

    1. There certainly aren’t any laws, and yes the ethics come down to a subjective understanding. Still within each genre there are custom established by use over time. It’s not all in a vacuum. We are all working in the same genres. 🙂

  4. If we accept your categories/definitions; and I certainly am willing to do so, what follows? Must a photographer identify each of their photographs within these classifications? How does one represent one’s work within an honest and ethical framework?

    1. You ask some big question. Personally I don’t think one has to defines one’s photographs within each group – for me it’s more about being conscious, seeing the differences and being aware of them. One way to present one’s work honestly and ethically is of course to be open about it – but how to do this practically will have to be up to each and every photographer. I can’t and won’t tell anyone for instance to mark their photos with how their were accomplished.

  5. From a viewer’s point of view, I thank you! I can’t tell you how important it is for me to know which photo is in which categories. I have respect for all photographers; all I want to know is to which category this particular photo belongs. Thanks.

  6. These categories provide an important separation with photography, great discussion. Each one important in their own right, and each with passionate followers (authentic digital being the one I would support) ~ and that is the beauty of this discussion you have created, there are different paths and no ‘right or wrong’. Makes it easier for other to appreciate the passion of another, even though their creativity may be so different and on the opposite sides of the spectrum. Well done Otto.

    1. Thanks for saying that, because I really have had no intent to disrespect anyone’s approach to photography and their photographic process. Because, as you say, there is no right and wrong – but still my hope is that we can learn from each others point of views.

      1. Amen to that, and as all sides become aware of the difference (and the work that goes into different creations), it will help the learning process.

  7. “Creativity is an act of defiance. … «Why do I have to obey rules?» «Why can’t I be different?» «Why can’t I do it my way?”

    A grand smile crossed my face when I read your words! Here’s to keeping a strong backbone and following our own unique voices!

    Thanks for clarifying the different forms of photography as well.

    Great post, as always.

  8. Very well thought out, Otto. Interesting, lucid discourse. I found your categorisation interesting and the more I thought about it, the more I had to agree! Because within each of these categories you could subdivide into the different genres of portrait, landscape, documentary etc. We could go on forever about genres, validity of certain types of photographs within a specific genre etc etc. I think you have hit the proverbial nail on the head by looking at it as mode of capture. Of course, I then got thinking about eg ‘Classical’ photography further, and yes, here you have it as analogue capture, but it could also be seen as a state of mind…more care in the capture, more precision, and some photographers have this with digital….but I digress, and it leads us to a whole other discussion!!

  9. Excellent article-I love this statement- “Creativity is an act of defiance. … «Why do I have to obey rules?» «Why can’t I be different?» «Why can’t I do it my way?”-
    I also like your categories and their explanations. I like authentic digital photography, but I’m most drawn to the open digital photography which I define as artistic photography or art that is photographically based.

  10. Many things discussed in this post clarified developments in photography that I only knew about vaguely. As I was reading I thought about parameters or rules needed in order to make art, the subject talked about in your previous post, which I heartily agree.
    Also…I love your accompanying photograph. It’s perfect for this post.

  11. Hello. I wonder what category the lovely photo you have posted with this article falls under? And what is your preferred method of operating? With thanks.

    1. That picture would fall under the category of Authentic Digital Photography – which is my usual area work lies. But I enjoy doing both Classical and Open Photography as well.

  12. “Once you put a label on something, it becomes an it, as if it is no more alive” – Morcheeba.

    One of my favorite quotes. I really don’t understand what the purpose is of a classification outside of contests or legal circumstances. As a photographer I don’t have a contract with the viewers of my images. As a viewer I may ask how an image was created and then expect a truthful response. If I work for a client, I need to follow their rules because they pay the bill. Otherwise, anything goes, in my opinion. Sorry to dissent, but you wanted dialog. There you go.

    1. Dissent is good, but I still disagree with you. 🙂 The contract is there whether you acknowledge it or not – in my opinion. Are of course you don’t have to care about any viewers and only make the photos for yourself. For me classification is a way to understand my craft to get the most out of it. But as you imply it’s a very personal opinion.

  13. This fits in with the issue of Media Literacy. There is a general lack of Media Literacy. The ever growing Mass Media technology and new forms of Mass Media have overwhelmed the education systems ability to improve the students understanding of it in an effective manner. That is why we still have a snapshot culture in spite of the advancements in photographic equipment. Everybody has a camera, but few of them know the basics of visual composition.

    This lack of critical understanding and the inability to evaluate and categorize types of photography by subject, use, or method leads to a strange mixture of naive acceptance of images and denial of their worth/ believability. Constructed Realities are either accepted without question, depending on context or tossed out as not true/real.

    Thanks again for supporting my blog. As a basically self trained photographer & digital creator it is much appreciated. 🙂

    I have linked to this post on a creative piece that was posted on a new blog I have started. The new blog explores the theme and concept of Implied Spaces.

    1. What you point to is very relevant. Understanding media and being critical to it’s use – in this case photography – ought to be taught in schools. Lack of understanding leads to – as you say – a snapshot culture. Thanks for sharing these thought provoking thoughts.

  14. Having grown up with film photography, personally I try to stick to the general rule that anything that could be edited with film photography (either in the darkroom as in developing time, or post-developing as in cropping) is OK when it comes to digital photography, but nothing much else gets altered with my images. I have to admit having the ability to greyscale a colour image on the spot is so much better than committing to creating only black and white images from the outset, but I still like to try to get my composition and exposure right at the point of capturing the shot wherever possible. However my husband, with a degree in Digital Media and New Technologies, has no qualms in experimenting with all forms of image manipulation – and occasionally his software skills have saved me from disaster when something has gone badly wrong with a one-off shot. Thank you for a thought-provoking and informative post 🙂

    1. You know the old saying “one man’s ceiling is another’s man’s floor” (well it was actually an old song by Paul Simon wasn’t it…). So it is in photography. We all have to find out our own limits – even within the same household. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ruth.

  15. This has been a fascinating series Otto. I think we are still grappling with the opportunities offered by the digital world of photography and our understanding of what photography is – digitally – has to evolve too. if you look back over the last 150 years of painting then that visual art went through a colossal upheaval if your consider some of the work produced – Matisse and his cut-outs, Picasso, Kandinsky, Lichtenstein, Klee to name a few whose work I have seen in the last two-three years. I think your classification is a simple one and that has merit. The RPS now has three newish interest groups: Visual Art, Contemporary and Creative. Frankly I’m struggling to understand how these groups represent different strands – we can make classification far too complex.

    1. Interestingly enough Matisse and other impressionists came out of photography – the then new art of photography forced traditional painting into new ways of expressing itself. Just as digital art does with traditional photography today. Great comment, Andy.

  16. The implied contract that you mention in your excellent post is something I’d not thought of consciously. That has set off a firestorm of thought in regards to all forms of artistry that I and others engage in. Valuable article and a good read. Thanks for your perspective (and the other comments as well!)

      1. That freaked me out a bit, I’m not Joseph. That’s the name of the laptop of my deceased husband that I’m using. 0_0

        It started thoughts about both my photography and my writing actually – and it was interesting that I found it cross-applicable by applying your article’s concepts.


        1. I am very sorry about the name – it came from too much multitasking at the same time. I did see it right away – and removed the name – and had hoped so quickly you wouldn’t even have noticed. But you were quicker than me. Sometimes faith has a surprise or two up its sleeves. Again I am very, very sorry.

          1. It’s quite alright. You just commented during my lunch hour, as otherwise I might not have seen it for hours Please don’t worry, it wasn’t that kind of shock and I surely didn’t intend to make you feel bad. Group hug!!!

      1. Ti chiedo un piccolo piacere. Se ti è possibile, quando passi a vedere le mie foto, se ci sono consigli da darmi, fai pure, io ne farò tesoro e accetto anche le critiche. Anche queste se insegnano qualche cosa sono importanti. Ovviamente se hai tempo di farlo, non sentirti obbligato. Grazie, Pat

  17. As already said many times in the previous comments, Otto, a very interesting discussion in your post. The contract, as you put it, is certainly most important to me in my way of photographing.

  18. LensScaper beat me to it. I kept thinking about photography going through a similar transition to painting as I was reading through your extremely thoughtful post. The digital realm has definitely provided us with new opportunities to enjoy and develop. It’s rather exciting to see where it takes us. But in the midst of your discussion you dropped a reminder that I need to slow down a bit and get back in touch with the deeper feelings I experienced when shooting film.

    1. Yes, the it is very exciting with all the new possibilities the digital development has provided us with. But you are so right; in the end, no matter if we stick to old ways or explore all the new possibilities, we have to create with our hearts.

  19. I’ve really enjoyed these three posts, Otto. I have found them to be insightful and provocative — in a good way — at the same time. I find the categories under discussion today bring some clarity for me, the amateur. The comments are always interesting. We’re only lacking a fine Guinness here! 😉 Love the Paul Simon reference. One of my favorite songs.

  20. I quite enjoyed reading this. Equips me with a mental map of photography with a sort of “fill in your own blanks” overlap between the categories. I’m relatively amateurish with photography, but your point about reality, objectiveness, and truth made me think about a Kracauer piece I’ve read on photography and the fine line between capturing reality and intended purposes of propaganda (think it was from the book “From Caligari to Hitler.”) Mind you, this was at a time when obfuscation was running rampant, but the unintended consequences of the photographer can be interesting to witness on its own.

  21. Love the “contract” idea. If a read a magazine like Geo or National Geographic or similar I expect the photos give me an idea of the places discussed in the articles. If there are electric wires along a road I desire to see them even with PS the photo could become “nicer”.
    But if I see a photo illustrating a novel I expect from that photo an emotion hitting me, therefore I do not care how much postprocess there is in it. Of course too much is too much and very often is disturbing.
    PS: I read anywhere that “photography does not lie, but liars are able to photograph” 🙂

    1. You examples are good, they clearly show the idea of the contrast between creator and recipient. And I like the quote – whoever said that. Thanks for the comment, Robert.

  22. Thanks for interesting reading, Otto; these three blog posts with their many comments! I appreciate that you used the words “authentic” and “authenticity” which I think are key. On the one hand we have photography where authenticity is the corner stone; scratch a bit on the authenticity and the whole building comes tumbling down by mere social forces – or is transformed into something completely different. On the other, we have photography where authenticity is an – optional – ingredient; for instance photographic art in a broad sense. My take is that that division really does it, whether chemical or digital, although the dividing line will always be blurry. Then there is also non-photography, like paintings or computer generated graphics, which sometimes play with the inherent authenticity of photography by attempting to appear as such. I like to think that I most prefer photographic art related to the documentary, with a strong ingredient of authenticity; but the more I ponder the less certain I get.. 🙂 Again, thanks for raising the thoughts.

    1. And thank you for broadening the thoughts and ideas. I think as you do that authentic and authenticity is the critical key here, but even their understanding has plenty of room for interpretation. In the end I believe that it’s not a bad thing to not be too certain. If you are too certain about your views you are only looking at the world with blinders – I believe.

  23. This is a great and bottomless discussion, Otto, as can be seen from the many thoughtful responses. I really like how you recognize the differences between Classical Photography–which enforces attention and alertness to details, in part because each shot is also a financial investment, as compared to Authentic Digital Photography which through it’s nearly limitless possibilities encourages freedom to experiment and take artistic risks.

    Computer generated photography is really an art form all its own. Rather than oils or water colors, the medium for computer generated photography is pixels. And you’re right, it is too clean to be real. It becomes surreal, a little like a Thomas Kinkade painting. Real or not, the creativity factor in computer generated photography is unlimited.

  24. Have you seen the Errol Morris talk on the truthsin photographs? He cites the photo from the Crimean war the valley of death, long accepted as a scene of carnage, but is the emperor’s new clothes – the PIC was clearly staged – no bodies, craters etc.

    1. No, I haven’t seen Morris’ talk, but sounds very interesting. It’s really not the only staged “documentary” is it? As someone else pointed out the famous photograph of US soldiers taking over Iwo Jima was also completely staged. Thank you for the comment, Barb, I will try and find Morris’ talk.

      1. Thanks. I also love the talk with Morris & Werner Herzog when they planned to dig up a canibal’s mother to see if her body was there. Morris bottled when he thought how his mother would react if her Jewish son was caught in a graveyard with an Austrian. Brilliantly wierd

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