Liz Wells, in her book Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition 2009) (*1) wrote a section called ‘The Real and the Digital'(pages 73 – 75). In it she questions the authenticity and ‘reality’ of photographs in the new age of digital when images can be manipulated and created to a previously unprecedented extent. For this Exercise I am asked to consider whether the introduction of digital technology has changed how we see photography as truth.
The alteration and amendment of images by artists has been practised since art was first created. UV examination of canvases has demonstrated that overpainting to create new images or to modify existing images is, and has been, a common occurrence in traditional painting. It is also the case that photographs have been the subject of manipulation for as long as photography has existed and that the degree to which that manipulation has been practiced has increased over the years as new technologies have been developed. Nowadays, with the introduction of digital photography and digital software, the scope for changing photographic images and even creating them from scratch is almost without limits and it has brought into sharp focus the question as to what is real and what is not, and what can we believe about an image.
Even the definition of a photograph has been open to debate and revision. The Concise Oxford Dictionary has defined a photograph as being a ‘picture taken by means of chemical action of light or other radiation on sensitive film’. By implication and if taken literally, this would mean that a digital image downloaded from a camera direct onto a computer and then printed off on a laser or ink printer is not a photograph as defined. Indeed, many images that we see all around us and that we loosely call photographs do not fall within the definition in the dictionary and should more correctly be referred to as images.
Before the introduction of digital photography and its increasingly sophisticated manipulatory software, the process of manipulation carried out in the darkroom was a more complicated and time consuming process which was largely used to modify the contrast and feel in images through dodging and burning rather than large scale additions or subtractions of elements within the subject. This was principally done by the artist in order to enhance the image or to bring out elements that the photographer deemed important rather than with any wish to mislead or falsify. Essentially a true moment in time was still captured even if its appearance was to some extent changed. It could be deemed ‘craft’ rather than ‘manipulation’. A brief and interesting exploration of this phenomenon is given in “That’s Photoshopped : Manipulation vs Craft” by Ben Lundsten.
With the development of sophisticated software which enables artists to radically alter images or create entirely new images at the press of a few buttons, photographic manipulation has entered a completely new era. We are surrounded by images that have been created or manipulated with the sole aim of deceiving or fulfilling a purpose which has nothing to do with art or craft as is evidenced when one looks at any fashion magazine or advertisement. This technology has the power of removing any allusion to or resemblance of reality, creating instead a fantasy as can be seen in many wedding photographs and photographs of children where butterflies, autumn leaves and flower petals abound and which culminate in so called ‘grunge’ images where fantastical scenes are created by the incorporation of unrelated subjects, backgrounds and texture themes.
The old saying that ‘a camera never lies’ has always been said with a certain amount of tongue in cheek as there has always been some facility available to bend the truth. Until the advent of digital photography, however, significant manipulation was the exception rather than the rule and photographs were largely accepted as recording an actual event, a moment in time, as suggested by Roland Barthes. Nowadays some branches of photographic practice are more akin to the creative process of painting where the imagination takes over from the actual in the compilation of an image and the artist takes complete control of the creative process. In response to this movement where impact and image are everything, much contemporary photographic ‘art’ now captures the mundane and ordinary, warts and all and with no attempt to beautify or enhance, or even follow conventional ideas regarding composition or contrast. The range of styles and visual concepts employed in amateur and professional photography has never been wider and more diverse. As a result, photography has gained a great deal in its ability to create images for all occasions and tastes but has lost a large measure of credibility as a medium for capturing reality and authenticity.
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*1 Photography: A Critical Introduction Liz Wells (2009) Abingdon ISBN-13: 978-0415854290
*2 Ben Lundsten blog https://medium.com/@benlundsten/the-stigma-of-photoshopping-aa288bf9a0fb#.oho1zy344
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