By Roger Overall
I have to declare an interest before I get started. I'm a documentary photographer. Worse, I'm middle-aged. That puts me fairly firmly in stick-in-the-mud territory. You need to bear that in mind while you read this. A grasp of a commentator's bias helps better understand what they are saying, no? Let’s begin.
By all accounts, the Master Photographers Association (MPA) put on a good show this year at its recent awards dinner. It drew comparisons with the Oscars. That's a fitting analogy when you consider that most of the winning images were as high on post-production values as many Hollywood movies.
Yesterday, the Federation of European Photographers (FEP) announced the category winners and runners-up in this year’s European Photographer of the Year Awards. Here too, heavily manipulated images did well.
That raises some questions, the kind that lead to fightin' talk in photographic salons. Have computer skills become more important than camera skills? What exactly is a photograph these days? Should we make a distinction between photography and image-making? If so, where exactly do we place the divide?
European photography has a bit of history when it comes to pushing the boundaries of post-production. Man Ray mastered solarisation and used it as the foundation for part of his career. (U.S. readers will, I hope, forgive the appropriation of one of their photographic luminaries as a European—after all, he did spend most if his career in Paris and is identified with that city's art traditions). Czech photographer Jan Saudek founded his career on heavy manipulation of prints. More recently, influential Irishman Vincent O'Byrne was until a few years ago using darkroom techniques to produce fantasy photographs. He has since switched to computers to help him achieve his results.
Where these photographers were once unique voices, Europe's professional elite are presently producing prodigious amounts of extravagant fantasy images. Europe isn't alone in this. Just look at Asian photographers such as Keda Z. Feng and Ryan Wong Teck Yan. In the U.S., there is of course Dave Hill. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
In some instances, very little photography-as-we-know-it-Jim is involved, with photographers dropping off ideas and schematics to rendering artists who translate the vision into an image on a computer screen. These are expressions of immense imaginations to be sure, and beautifully crafted, but what have they got to do with photography?
We shouldn’t be surprised that straight photography is being lapped in competition by heavily post-processed images. Consider the myriad options in the RAW processing modules in Lightroom and Aperture. Even the photo apps on your smartphone encourage heavy post-production. Lord knows what the statistic is, but it's a fair guess that only a small minority of Instagram photographs make it on to the web without one of the filters being applied.
We’re being overrun by sliders and dials and curves—options to add more colour, less colour, selective focus, no focus, warp this, bend that, tone the other, reduce noise, enhance noise, drop that in, cut that out. Everything that software developers are doing is geared towards enticing us further away from the moment of taking the photograph. Photography is shifting away from the instant of capture in favour of post-production.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Modern software is unleashing an incredible amount of imagination that previously couldn't be expressed. But it does put the ordinary photograph at a disadvantage. It's hard to compete with luxuriant fantasy worlds where people live in floating castles and mermaid princesses ride dolphins. I don't know about you, but I just don't get those sorts of thing 'round my way—and I live in Ireland.
Probably, the time has come to separate out photography from image-making (of which your actual photograph is only a small component—however well executed). Doing so will likely cause a fight, but let's be honest: we could do with one. It's been a bit dull round the blogosphere since the film vs. digital debate subsided.
You can see the two camps. On one side: "real" photographers. They will view themselves as the purists, the guardians of the tradition of producing an image in-camera. Inevitably, they will feel superior. We shall call them Bressonites. Clever merchandizers will sell them T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: "I did it in camera." If they're really clever, they'll put a red dot in there somewhere.
Over on the other side of the line, their rivals will revel in their ability to take a still image (or a clutch of them) and turn them into a remarkable flight of fancy using modern technology. They too will feel superior, due to their ability to conjure up entirely fictional galaxies on their screens. No relying on reality for them. We shall call them Lucasonians. Their T-shirts will read: "I did it with three warrior angels and I made them all look like Angelina Jolie."
There is a wider implication. Professional photographer organisations don't want to lose members over this, so they'll have to rebrand in some way to house both camps. In fact, there is talk among some associations in Europe that it is time to bring videographers into the fold as well. That's a whole other debate, but interesting to note that while stills-video convergence is driving photographers and videographers together, Photoshop has put a wedge between Bressonites and Lucasonians.
The time has come for each of us to ask ourselves: am I a photographer or an image-maker?
TOP reader Roger Overall is a photographer from Cork, Ireland. Here's his weblog.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Steve Jacob: "Art photography vs. photo Art?
"Photography has always had many classifications, and photo-based illustration has always been an accepted sub-set of the genre, though these days in a commercial sense it has become hugely significant thanks to advances in computer-based imaging. As a result it features heavily in professional advertising-oriented events and competitions.
"However, there are plenty of photo exhibitions and prizes which are entirely specialised and involve no manipulation (though perhaps a bit of enhancement). The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize for one. I don't think we should worry too much about this when there is still a burgeoning market for Magnum style images and art schools are still preaching objectivity.
"Each genre has its place and always will."
Featured Comment by Chris Raecker: "Literature is a medium. There is fiction. There is non-fiction. Fiction is not a lie, it's just not a document. Do documents lie? All the time. Can a work of fiction tell truths? Some of the most important truths in religion and philosophy are told in fiction.
"Photography is a medium. There is fiction. There is non-fiction...."
Featured Comment by David: "I have no problem with photography versus photo-illustration. I do however dislike the lumping in with the video people. In my opinion, still and video is the real chasm. It's a different mindset and way of working."
Featured Comment by Ludovic: "I'm usually quite sanguine about these things, but I'm flabbergasted that either of the samples—Feng's in particular—in this post were considered photographs in the first place. But then again, Pixar make films, so what do I know?"
Featured Comment by Mathias: "I am primarily a documentarist photographer as well. I think most photographers don't really get the value of a straight photo unless they have worked within the fields of documentary or photojournalism, where purism is expected. I am also a graphic designer, and a photoshop expert (and beta tester). Knowing how to expertly post process my images into something else (art?), does not mean that I do it—I have always strived to capture my vision at the moment of shutter release. However, a digital negative (RAW) is ofcourse only the first step in the process. I don't mind using all the tools at my disposal within Camera RAW for instance. Mostly global corrections, but also some spotting work, perhaps a graduated filter to darken the sky. The effects I apply can be grain to simulate film, vignetting to simulate a lens, or cross processing to simulate a darkroom technique. I don't mind using these tools, as the digital image is often very sterile in its perfection, and a photographer is allowed to develop a 'look.' Saying that I only do what can be done in a darkroom is moot, because you can do a whole lot in a darkroom. Saying that I want to capture perfection with only the camera is moot, because I usually set the camera to capture the best data for post processing—where my vision is concluded. I think its a valid discussion you bring up, and I do think there should be differentiated categories in photo competitions depending on whether its a created or captured image—and this goes double for 'street' vs 'studio'—in order to save the craft of, let's call it, 'hunting photography,' itself."
Featured Comment by Michael Bearman: "In 1917 when Captain Frank Hurley had his composite images of WWI Western Front battlefields rejected by the Imperial War Museum and Australia's official war historian, Charles Bean on the ground that 'they were little short of fake.' Hurley sought to create the impression of the battle by e.g. placing images of explosions in the same frame as Australian soldiers going over the top, with a biplane overhead. He considered the impression left by the image to be his purpose—the camera and negative being a parallel to a painter's paints and brush. The museum and Bean thought that photography ought be 'scrupulously genuine'; viz. an unmanipulated record. Hurley was posted from the Western front to Palestine of which he made a moving an 'acceptable' photographic record.
"Photography operates both as a scientific tool and as a visual art. Although these ends often join together (e.g. in photojournalism, or images from the Hubble telescope) they will often and inevitably be in conflict. Debate about the acceptance of digital manipulation of images as photography is merely the latest, early 21st Century example."
Featured Comment by latent_image: "I think there is a case to be made for point-for-point representation in photography, but I also appreciate that a lot of people disagree or could care less. I also think it worth remembering that shooting transparencies is a form of photography that is almost entirely based on a camera work. Since I used to shoot transparencies exclusively for professional work, I continue to have a strong preference for minimal post-production."
Featured Comment by richardplondon: "Image manipulation—or construction, assemblage, whatever you want to call it—is of course perfectly fine, provided there's no intent to deceive anyone in a factual sense. But looking at these images, I am just thinking what has been already said many times, in many ways: having restricted means tends to liberate the creative imagination, and having unrestricted means tends to impoverish it. It is as if everything of value had been squeezed out of surrealism, and then we had—depressingly—been served up the dry pith and rind, instead of the fresh juice."