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The Myth of Photographic Reality – Part I

by George Murphy on July 17, 2010

The Myth of Photographic Reality
…or, What Exactly Is There About Any Aspect of Photography That Isn’t Manipulated or Controlled?

Introduction
This article is not about whether photography can create images that document and communicate important truths. It can and does. This article is about how photography achieves this despite what is inherently a manipulative process from front to back.

Now, while what happens between that moment the shutter is released and when the final image finds it’s way in front of an audience, is the subject of much debate these days, this narrow attention on the back-end of the process ignores some of the most manipulated parts of the photographic process; and underscores how our understanding of the photographs we see has not kept pace with the evolution of the medium and it’s impact on how we make pictures.

What follows is my own attempt to put some perspective on how we have made pictures in the past and how that familiar baseline relates to modern photography workflows.  Toward the end of this article, I bravely offer suggestions for how we might provide a better framework for communicating the nature of the images we create and likewise judging the images we see.

Speaking of frameworks – a little information about my own background seems appropriate: My own photographic roots are based in landscape photography, photojournalism, documentary photography, and an intense respect for the integrity of the subject that comes with these types of images.

In stark contrast, my work in commercials and feature films has kept me in the forefront of digital imaging technology since the early 1980’s, long before it took root in the mainstream photographic world. In this realm, my work has been almost entirely about the synthesis and manipulation of reality toward creating believable fictions on film.

So, I come to this issue with a comfortable understanding of both extreme digital workflows and very traditional photochemical photography. As a creator of images who’s work could fall anywhere in the spectrum from digital fantasy to journalistic reality, it is very important to me that the images I make remain true to the viewer’s expectation for the intended media they will be presented in. As such, I do not want my ability to create staged fiction in one type of photography to take away from the credibility of images that I might present in a documentary or journalistic context. To this end, I would like to see us establish conventions that give us the tools to communicate which is which.

Ultimately, that is why I am here writing about this. So, let’s dive in…

It’s Not Just About Post-Production
There is a lot of angst these days about abuses in the digital darkroom and it’s impact on the credibility of photography in presenting honest images of the world around us. However the truthfulness of an image relies on more than just the question of how much it’s been manipulated in some image-editing package; it begins with all of the subjective choices that we make before and during the moment the shutter is released.

In looking at how photography can be used to communicate truth, we must first acknowledge and understand how photography is, and always has been, a highly subjective, controlled process at every stage – not just in post-production.

Just how do all of the inherently manipulative processes that go into making a photograph affect our understanding of the “truth” of the subject portrayed in our images; and based on an honest acknowledgement of this, where do we draw the line between bringing focus to our subject and going too far, such that we have fundamentally changed the subject?

In support of this, how do we establish a language that more appropriately describes our images – one that acknowledging modern image workflow – and helps viewers to better understand the nature of the images they are looking at?

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This can be a very polarizing subject, and I’ll be honest, it’s a little frightening diving in; but I continue to watch with a mix of fascination and frustration as so much attention is put on only one piece of the puzzle these days. I feel we are in danger of losing sight of what is important in the images we create.

While our concept of what photography is, has not changed much since pre-digital days, clearly some fundamental aspects of the photographic workflow have changed quite dramatically in the transition to new media and the tools for controlling that media. My hope is that as both the authors and publishers of photography begin to truly understand these changes, we will spend less time chasing our technological fears and focus more productively on the craft of photography and whether our images are communicating an understanding of our subjects in the way we intend.

The Manipulative Nature of Photography
Photography is fundamentally about discriminating the elements of the scene in front of the camera, and through the controlled manipulation of the tools and materials of photography, serving the photographer’s editorial or creative intent. This is true regardless of whether the photographer is shooting film or digital.

To put it another way, your entire perception of a subject is the sum result of all of the subjective choices that we as photographers make from the inception of an image through to it’s final presentation; including the final context that the image is presented in (i.e. newspaper vs. editorial vs. advertisement).

Leading up to the moment of any photograph, and common to film or digital workflows, are the many editorial and technical decisions we will have made that can dramatically affect our final understanding of the subject. While some of these decisions may seem instantaneous and instinctive, they are uniquely different for each of us and hugely subjective in their nature.

Let’s get specific, just so we don’t gloss over some very influential aspects of creating images that we often take for granted:

     

  • We choose an angle and distance from which to photograph the subject, making compositional choices about, not only what to include in the frame, but just as importantly, what to exclude; deciding what is relevant to the subject and what is distracting.
  • In conjunction with the above, we choose a particular lens whose specifics can dramatically alter the sense of a subject’s relationship with its surroundings, integrating or isolating it.
  • Affected by our lens choice, we also select a point of focus in our image, controlling where our viewer’s eye will go. This, in combination with our choice of aperture, can further isolate or integrate our subject with its surroundings.
  • In picking a shutter speed we can drastically alter our perception of the moment. Long exposures, are often surreal, while extremely short shutter speeds can reveal a reality that our normal vision never perceives. Each choice presents a different kind of “truth.”
  • And what about lighting? Is it all natural? Are we adding light from a flash or other source? We often accept this manipulation of the scene as merely revealing the un-manipulated subject… kind of like heavy dodging and burning in post (if words could illustrate sarcasm, it would be heavy here!); but we can’t deny that it is an intrusion of the photographer upon the found scene, and reliant on the photographer to decide if it changes our interpretation of the subject.
  • Finally, we choose that one moment, or several, out of all of the moments available to us to represent the subject in time – perhaps the most critical act of controlled judgment by the photographer; the one moment that can best summarize a subject in a single frame or just as easily misrepresent the nature of a subject by isolating an uncharacteristic expression or a gaff. While the image is real, whether the captured moment represents the truth, is at the mercy of the photographer’s judgment, skill and intent.

While this is may all seem obvious to some of you, no one seems to be talking about this side of the equation in all of the heated discussions about photographic manipulation these days.

Editorial Intent
Speaking of intent, before making any image, we will have had to answer for ourselves two questions: What are we trying to photograph and why?

The answers to those questions will have created a point of view, or editorial intent, heavily influencing all of the decisions leading up to and beyond the moment of the shutter’s release. At worst, depending on how extreme that point of view is, right then and there, any objective presentation of the subject might become impossible and the images will be crafted to merely support the photographer’s point of view. At best, the editorial intent will demand respect for the subject and diligence from the photographer to represent the subject fairly, merely influence the style in which the subject is captured.

The Manipulative Nature of Film
It wasn’t all that long ago that the mere act of scanning an image could make it, well… less photographic, in some eyes. There was a knee-jerk suspicion of everything digital.

While the drumbeats of the ‘Great Digital Witch Hunt’ are dying down, there is a a serious lack of acknowledgement, these days, of just how manipulative the familiar photo-chemical workflow really is and how heavy the prejudice is against the equivalent manipulations in the digital darkroom.

Think about it – we pick a film based, not only on the nature of the lighting and type of subject we expect to encounter, but also based on an understanding of how the characteristics of a particular film stock will manipulate the tonal range of the subject and affect the visual style of the final image: If B&W we might consider how the film’s contrast and grain structure, in combination with our intended printing style, will give the image a certain texture; if color slides, it might be the particular color cast and response curve of the emulsion and how it brings out or suppresses shadow and highlight details.

In a very direct way, these “look” characteristics of each film stock are the analog version of those pre-packaged style plug-ins you might use in Lightroom or Photoshop – yes, the off-the-shelf one’s that you don’t necessarily know what’s being adjusted under the hood, but might simply like the look of. Similarly, film stocks represent finite “style sets” that have been worked out by engineers and chemists, and made available to photographers to achieve a pre-packaged, desired tonal and color response.

Do most photographers out there understand the details of how a particular emulsion is formulated? Of course not – they just use it because it delivers an expected result that they like the look of. Over time they begin to understand the subtleties of how that recipe responds, tailoring the way they shoot to maximize control over the results. It’s simply a tool that they learn to control.

While film choice might be the primary control a photographer has over a subject’s presentation on film, what about the significant additional manipulation that can occur in the processing of that film? By manipulating time, temperature and agitation, the photographer can add or reduce contrast, affect the coarseness of the grain structure or compensate for exposure and lighting issues. And of course printing from negatives opens up a whole added dimension of manipulation with dodging, burning and contrast controls.

My point here is that traditional film workflow is no more inherently “honest” than any digital workflow (or conversely, digital workflows are no more “dishonest” than any film workflow). Film is all about control and manipulation – that’s always been the art and craft of it… it’s just more familiar – particularly to the editors who have to guess at the nature of the images being presented to them.

Somehow, even now as we embrace digital imaging in every aspect of photography, the same kind of manipulation of raw digital data in the digital darkroom is often viewed as unethical or “cheap,” even when achieving virtually identical results.

How is this rational?

Reconciling Digital vs. Film – The Same But Different
So, now we replace film with an electronic sensor and our control over contrast, color balance and saturation suddenly happens after the shot is made instead of before. In principle it’s really no different. What the digital workflow introduces is the ability to make choices after the fact, to rethink decisions made at the time of exposure, even compensate for unexpected results; and to have live visual feedback as we make those choices.

The digital equivalent of our “latent” film image – that RAW unprocessed file – is almost passive in the same way that the original subject was to our camera, and the functionality of the camera now extends into the digital darkroom.

This last point is hugely important – it represents a fundamental change to the way we make photographs! That magic relationship of film, lighting, processing and exposure that represented a one way commitment by the photographer at the time of exposure, is now quite directly an integral part of post-shoot decision making that happens in a our digital workflow.

To be clear – this is not about the fact that you CAN manipulate images after the fact in the digital darkroom – this is about understanding that manipulation of the raw file IS the digital workflow… it’s how you get the most basic image, even if all you are doing is applying the default presets that make a raw file look like a normal image and pretend that you aren’t “manipulating” anything.  Really, it’s the equivalent of processing raw film to get a viewable negative, but with the added ability to make the film take on the characteristics of any stock you want… and yes, after the fact.

That the darkroom becomes part of the “camera” is a concept that is almost universally misunderstood, and I suspect, the thing that has created the most distrust and confusion amongst those that fear the control that digital workflows offer. In principal the choices we are making, and digital tools that we are using can have the same net result, we are just making them at a different place in the process; and sure, you don’t have to live with wrong choices in quite the same way as we used to, but the same could be said of so many innovations in photography over the years.

You might argue that this erodes the “craft” of photography, or that it allows a less skilled photographer to effectively create an image that would have previously required more talent, but you can’t use that as a fair argument to invalidate the “truth” of the content of the resulting image.

Photography has changed and will continue to change in ways we can’t even imagine at the moment; yet it still has the power to create art or reveal truth or simply document reality… all depending on the photographer’s intent.

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In Part II of this article I look closer at the distinction between what the photographer brings to an image, versus the subject itself, and the expectations viewers have for these images, based on the context that we publish them in. I will also delve into how we might better communicate the nature of the images we create, so that audiences can appreciate and trust images for what they are, instead of doubting them for what they might be.

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