I do believe photojournalism must be held to the higher standard of representing reality. But this still raises the question for everyone, including myself, of whether there can be too much manipulation of a photograph? Is it ok to manipulate the photo as long as you’re not claiming that it’s reality?
Photo manipulation is done to every single photograph taken digitally today, whether you think you are manipulating it or not. If you shoot jpgs, you are letting the camera manipulate the colors and levels and sharpness. That vivid scene from your vacation—was it really that vivid? (Remember, most cameras have “vivid” and “landscape” settings to boost color saturation.) For those who shoot in a RAW format, then we control the manipulation in our software, from minor to major processing. But that’s not the issue raised with this article. Reality is the issue, and the accurate capture of the scene.
We’ve all received those emails with cute pictures of animals who are natural enemies snuggled up to each other that make you say to yourself “that’s amazing, but, is it real?” Do you care that you are likely being duped? Does it matter that the photos might not be real? (I’m not saying that these aren’t real. I’ve not researched it. If anyone has, I’d love to know!) This isn’t a reportage situation, so it’s not like it’s an article about these natural enemies in the New York Times. It’s not a big deal. Right?
And now let’s throw in artistic photography—more the camp where I reside. There is no comparison. Right? If you see a photograph of a red tulip poking its head through the snow, do you care if what you are seeing is real? Does it matter that it might be a composite image? Or do you just care if it’s “pretty”? (I don’t have a photograph of a red tulip in snow, so I figured this was a safe example to provide. :) )
For myself, I avoid major manipulation like cloning (erasing) like the plague. Of course “major” is a relative term, but for the sake of definition, let’s use the example of removing a big red barn from a pastoral scene. I just don’t do it. One, I’m lazy. It takes a lot of work to do it right. But now what if all I have to do is crop the photograph to get the image I want? How is that any different? I sometimes take some artistic license with color. But for the most part, if you see a scene of trees in winter, that was the scene I captured. Just my image may have been “buffed and polished” to convey more of an emotion, or draw your eyes to part of the scene, or converted to black & white for one reason or another. I think on the continuum of purist (very little photo processing) to no-holds-barred, I’m basically centrist with purist leanings.
There are obvious photo manipulations. I have several examples in my portfolio. (In the real world you just don’t see those textures that make the image look “grungy”.) There are a few not so obvious manipulations in my portfolio. (Could the sunset have really been that orange?) But then the majority, for the most part, are “what I saw is what you see”. And a few, like the one I’ve included here, people think I’ve manipulated, when I did very little to this image other than convert it to black and white! I simply used the tools I had with me—rain on a windshield, a Lensbaby lens, my camera, and the brains to seize the moment.
So to bring back an old commercial tagline,” Is it real, or is it Memorex?” Does anyone care?