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Monday, 13 August 2007


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Well, I've read the post, but not all the replies - so this may not be new.

So I've captured a "true" photograph on 35mm film and developed it. I've scanned it and manipulated it in PS then printed, so that print isn't a photograph, if I understand your point. So now I take the same negative and print using traditional chemical methods. Arguably that's a print of a photograph, not the photograph itself, which label should be reserved for the "unalterable" capture medium - the negative (or positive, as the case may be) ... No? Certainly if I took a "photocopy" of the chemical print that wouldn't actually be a photograph, would it?

On this issue of ease of manipulation. I think it's a red herring. A crucial test of cinema or photography is not how closely it approximates 'reality' but whether the viewer can get drawn in. Is there a suspension of disbelief and does the art speak to the viewer in a powerful way?

All kinds of special effects are more easily possible now then before in cinema. But does it matter whether that was a real extra in the crowd scene or a computer simulation? Does it matter that the scenario is physically impossible in the real world if the narrative is effective and has something compelling to say to the viewer?

Point taken regarding seeing the manipulation.
However, as always with "forgery" as the techniques are getting better (Digital) the detection methods must be adjusted. Unfortunately our eyes aren't meant to detect digital forgery, that's why many people work on digital means to detect them. I don't know how well it will work, but for the sake of photojournalism I hope they do.

BTW, for those of us (like me) who can't tell the darkroom manipulation easily (or at all) it would be great if you can post some examples.


Last Spring, I showed up at the Art League, in Alexandria, VA, with my two prints on our monthly all-media submission day to find that instead of one sign on the wall - "photography" - where we usually left our work for consideration by the guest juror, there was now an additional sign on the opposite wall that said "digital". I protested and the gallery assistant got rid of the new sign the next month, and I haven't seen it since.

The problem is that so many people think that if you put a print under the "digital" sign, then you MUST have done most of the things you listed above. This is utter nonsense. We used to be able to find vantage points that allowed us to shoot the landscape in such a way that the barbed wire was not in the frame before, but for some reason, the assumption is that we now seem to have lost the desire to capture something reasonably pristine just because we wanted to print our own color work without a great deal of fuss. First, we bought a scanner, now we have a DSLR. True, some low contrast scenes now have some pop when we print them, and without digital post-processing we wouldn't even have bothered taking the shot, even with Velvia, but most color digital printers I know do not know how to do most of the selective changes you listed. It's all limited to subtle global adjustments, but far too many viewers, having read some article on all these nutty manipulations, now assume it's an integral part of the process.

I hear this over and over again and wonder sometimes if I should carry around a page of some of my better transparencies just to show them what you can do in camera.


I can't, after this last post of yours, disagree with your premise. There is a tangible object, however distorted, slight or otherwise, from the original reality at that moment in time. But, (always a but), is the negative more important than the print?

For myself, I'm focused on the object at the end of the process, and so am not concerned about process, other than to look at ways to make the process easier and more to conducive to any need I may feel to manipulate it for the end result.

As to reality, I'm sorry, the quest for truth does not travel through a camera lens, but we all have our personal religious beliefs. If you seek truth, maybe ashes and hair shirts rather than cameras.

It is an interesting discussion; clarifying my own thinking a little, and not in disagreement, so much as not quite sure it is as important an issue as we all have made it.

As to objects, shouldn't we be more outraged at the loss of early color prints? Are we being "sold" again?



"Only by the ingenuity of the computer algorithm can this stream of voltages be interpreted as an image. In this sense, a digital image has no existence outside of the context used to create it. However, an image recorded on film is an intrinsic and immutable record of the event being recorded."

This is precisely the difference between analog and digital audio recording, and the same passions are unleashed whenever discussions of their relative merits arise. For a professional it's extremely important to grasp the difference - then to forget it and make good music with whatever tools are available. I think the same applies to photography. Arguing about tools is a way to distract ourselves from the really difficult job - learning how to make good pictures.

Bravo on your thought provoking essay. I agree this is not aobut digital versus film. Rather the discussion reveals distinct differences in process, product and viewer experience.

I particularly like/agree with the idea that it's all about the lens making a record.

It's interesting that photography's evolution is experiencing something opposite to tape recording. Before events were recorded on tape (perhaps a concert or speech) , they were left to the memory/interpretation/embellishment of the listener sharing what they heard. After the invention of microphones and recording equipment, we have a record.... a far different reference point than embellished memory.

With tape recording the quality of the microphone is all important...giving a distinct flavor to the recording.

It's easy to carry the analogy too far, with digital recording, the
enhancements of performances in the recording studio. Is it ethical to make performers better on a recording than in real life?

Hmm, you could also connect this performance enhancement to baseball on steriods. It makes more things possible...Is that what digital imagery is, photography on steriods?!

With digital imagery we have a different kind of record than with film. The process, product and viewing experience are also impacted in important ways by these differences. If Barry Bonds really has used steriods, it's a different process, product, viewing experience than Hank Aaron.

Thanks for the insight, sweat, and struggle you put into this amazing bit of human culture.


Steve Cifka
Olympia, WA

"Remove the fence"

Scan the image. Remove the fence in PS or Gimp. Print.

Or is it no longer "photography" if you scan-and-print instead of using an enlarger?

Mike I agree with you that it is much more difficult to modify a neg than it is a digital capture (or what ever we are calling them today). But it can be done and I do all the time. Here is how: scan a B&W neg, say a 2 1/4 square but it can be any neg. Open it and modify it with Photoshop, take away the fence and the telephone lines. Now enlarge the modified image to 5x7 or 8x10 or what ever size you want your contact print to be. Put a piece of over head transparency material ( I use Pictorico) in your ink jet printer. Tell the printer you are printing on high quality glossy paper. Tell it that you want the highest qualilty output. If the printer is an Epson be sure you have photo black ink installed not matt back. You can now print out an enlarged neg that you can make kind any contact print you want without those pesky telephone lines.This is a sketchy description of the process, there is a bit more tweaking to be done but you get the idea. I am using this to make Kallitypes. Dan Berkholder makes Platinum prints using this method. He published an excellent how- to-do- it book on this process. E

Going back to the original post, it seems that the position of the author is that Digital Photography is NOT Photography, which is patently false.
I can make a print of a digital photograph 'straight', without any corrections, just like I can with a negative. I can treat a digital file just like a negative if I want to, doing basic cropping, dodge/burn, contrast control, unsharp masking, etc.

The real question is where does digital manipulation (or any photo manipulation) cross from being photography to being closer to what I would call 'mixed media'.
At what point does a photograph become sufficiently altered that it no longer can be called a photograph, and it becomes something else? But that is NOT the question that the original author argued. He basically said that digital capture is not photography.

I'll give you an example that even applies to film. If I coat a three dimensional object such as a chunk of wood with an emulsion, and project and develop a negative on that wooden object... is it a photograph? It will certainly look VERY different than if I had printed it on paper. The characteristics of the wood impart a distinct look to the image, a look that would not exist had I used regular paper. Although the image was printed in a fully traditional form from a film negative, is this a photograph or something else?

Or what if I scan a negative, and use the file to print the unretouched negative onto acrylic using a burning laser. Just because I didn't use developer and fixer does that mean that the image is not a photograph?

Is the definition of a photograph that which only closely duplicates the original scene? That is a pretty narrow view that few will side with.

Again, a digital file of an image is a photograph, there is no question about that, since I can print it unaltered the same way that I can print film. The real question is when does image manipulation alter a photograph into something else.

A color slide is no more a directly written capture of the scene in front of the camera than any Bayer-filtered and software reconstructed digital picture that I just printed out on my inkjet printer.

The little color particles only get to those spots on the little piece of plastic through some ingenious dance of applied physics and chemistry.

It's true that non-digital photographs are less manipulateable than digital photographs. It's hard to argue that it's not. What I don't understand is why that point is important.

The captured image is inherently a manipulation of what is in front of your face. In your example, if I want to remove the fence, I recompose so the fence is not in the picture. There ya go. Or I scan the negative and mess with it in Photoshop.

The fact that digital pictures are a bit more malleable after the fact does nothing to change this. Photographs are not objective records of what was in front of the camera. They never have been. They have always been more about the guy shooting the picture than what the camera is pointed at.

And finally, FWIW, I've always sucked at Photoshop tricks, so I tend not to do it.

I did do this picture though, which is a composite of two exposures taken quickly next to each other. That's about as radical as I get.


I think digitally manipulated pictures are a different thing than traditional photographs, but this does not make digital photography a different thing in general. The core act is exactly the same.

Mike, your original argument, if I understood correctly, was that digital photography shouldn't be called photography because it was far more open to manipulation (after the recording of the image) than chemical photography. In this post, you elaborate on the maleability of the digital recording of the image (an image file), versus the chemical recording (a negative). But you're still failing to support your argument for the very simple reason that you are confusing storage (and manipulation) with capture.

You state that nothing is written on a sensor. I guess you didn't write this article, either? (And I'm not writing right now.) You confuse the act of writing with the storage medium it is recorded on. With chemical photography, as well as pen and paper writing, the capture medium (paper and chemicals) is the same as the storage medium. With digital the capture medium (a sensor and a keyboard, respectively) is completely different to the storage medium (a file). This, of course, is key to the power of digital tools.

Photography is about the capture of an image, not its storage or manipulation. The fact that a digital storage medium is far more open to manipulate than a chemical one (barring security measures, such as present in camera-signed image files) is a separate issue from photography. This "discipline" even has its own names, such as photomanipulation, etc.

By trying to collapse the capture and storage media and process into one you've merely managed to get yourself terribly confused. Chemical and digital photography really aren't that different, and neither is really that good at recording a totality of objective reality, due to the total lack of context present in photographs. (Not to mention the way they record light in various ways based on the state or type of chemicals, or the configuration of the sensors, etc.)

Like you, I find the malleability of digital images often leads to less interesting images, and I instantly detested the demo picture of the bay you included in the previous post when I first read the article it comes from. I hope, however, that this is just like the sudden profusion of tasteless, font-heavy stuff at the beginning of the DTP revolution. Tools like Nikon Capture NX (or Lightroom), which focus on more darkroom-like techniques (with the addition of lens filter-like ability to manipulate colours) are a step in the right direction (away from Photoshop).

A last comment: if your argument is correct (more manipulation means less photography) then, by all accounts, Ansel Adams would be less of a photographer than a snapshooting dad because Adams did so much work with his images in the darkroom. No?

Regarding the "severe" constraints on one's ability to introduce falsehoods into a picture in a purely film/darkroom workflow, you might want to check out The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia. Amazing stuff. (Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Commissar-Vanishes-Falsification-Photographs-Stalins/dp/0805052941)

It's surely easier to do this kind of thing in Photoshop -- but I think that just reflects a lowering of the bar (in terms of skill, effort, and/or time), not a removal of constraints.

Um, not to be purposely obtuse (well, maybe just a little bit)but, what exactly is your point? You seem to have settled on "immutability" as an important dividing line between digital and film (hence the quote from Julian), then added "difficult to manipulate". Well, "immutable" isn't true - you, I'm sure, have accidentally opened a camera back (as has every other photographer who's ever worked with film), or had something go wrong in the "algorithm" of film developing. Either of those events takes your "immutable" molecular record and eradicates it. To say nothing of the complex algorithm involved in actually printing a negative and developing the print. Does it make a substantive difference that the "algorithm" is being executed by a human being, rather than a machine?

And "difficult to manipulate" isn't true, either. Yes, it's pretty tough to fool around in the darkroom with an 8x10 contact print, but what if the scene on the negative is a fake to begin with, a la Jeff Wall?

The argument that it's easier to "lie" with digital says nothing about its status as photography. It's a lot easier to lie with pen and ink than it is with a stylus and clay tablets. Does this mean that anything recorded in ink on paper isn't writing? Are the ideas you publish on TOP not writing because there's no permanent record?

I'm really just not clear on what distinction you're trying to make. Not to mention, why.

Dear Mike,

Please, lay the etymology games to rest? They only diminish your other points. You (and Julian) are wrong in your description of what a digital camera array does, and Jeff and I have gone to pains to point out.

The CCD (or CMOS) array is NOT like a collection of photocells that just pass on a signal indicating how strong the light is. The array records the light hitting it, by physically sequestering the electrons generated by light hitting the pixels. The physical difference is that film sequesters those electrons in silver atoms in a silver halide crystal, while the array sequesters them in a potential well in a silicon crystal.

That static electron image record is a latent image as much as film's is. It's a physical change in the condition of the pixels that can be retained (for a limited period of time) and even examined directly in a laboratory. It's not an ephemeral signal or voltage fluctuation. It's a real entity, as much as a silver halide latent image is.

This is *SO* unimportant to the good points you're making that I wish you'd just drop it. It's not a point you can win, because you've got the physical facts wrong.

pax / Ctein

Well I have read the article and your comments and do disagree. There indeed is a recording of the information that is the literal representation of the scene, the sensor merely transmits the information, as accurately in fact more accurately than the lens transmits the scene. Any manipulation that occurs is after the recording and is the choice of the photographer, If fact there are now means to lock that information from editing to insure the representation is truly accurate, however few photographers would make that choice except for the case of legal evidence. I prefer to manipulate little, less than I would have in the dark room precisely because people feel if it is digital it is altered, others don't make that choice. As always it's a matter of the choice of the photographer, not the medium that was used. LIke it or not, film does not make an accurate recording there are serious limitation in that technology as well. Simply because I don't understand the computer algorithms doesn't necessarily mean it's not accurate, I don't totally understand the chemistry behind developing film and printing, but I do understand its limitations and basic accuracy. If photography is dead, it's the choice of the people behind the camera, not the technology

This conversation is getting silly. I am sure that 4000 years ago there were a bunch of Egyptians sitting around arguing the merits of hieroglyphics on wet clay vs. papyrus.

Look where it got them.

I think there is entirely too much navel-gazing in fine art photography, so much so that it actually takes some of the joy out of it. I suppose it comes with the territory (art), but since there are no limits every imposed on this continual analysis, it does tend to veer into the obtuse mastabatory shadows.

Not that there's anything wrong with that :)

I learned a great deal about the Kodak Dye Transfer process from one of its masters, Ernest Dusablon, who ran the Color Works Lab in Detroit, Michigan. One job I remember very well was when an ad agency requested that Ernie take the head of the model from one shot, impose it on the body of the same model in another shot, the shirt the model was wearing from a third shot (the model's sleeves looked neater in the third frame), then the hands holding some beer bottles from a fourth shot, enlarge the hands and the bottles to make the perspective enhance the bottles, and then lastly add a different background from a fifth shot. Then, using the same dyes that Ernie's lab had used to make the print, a retoucher made all the seams disappear. The finished product looked like a "real" photograph. Sure, it took two days in the lab and a lot of skilled labor, but my point is that very sophisticated photo comping, as sophisticated as most of the digital examples people serve up in the digital vs film debate, was all possible in the good 'ole film era. More to the point, it was done all the time in the advertising field. So digital makes it easier now, and thus the photo trickery now spills over into photojournalism, amateur snapshots, and other genres of photography where it hardly existed before. Unfortunate, but that says far more about our current culture and ethics than it does about about any conceptual differences which disqualify all digital images from being true photographs.

It's really about hunter/gathering vs. cultivating, isn't it?

So maybe we should call completely unmanipulated photos "HG-photos", and those with their power lines removed and buffalos added can be "C-photos".

I'm a cultivator. My photos get submitted to shows with an artist's statement. I want them to be understood in the right context, not vilified for having the nerve to be executing an idea that came from imagination rather than life. They are still photographs, though. They utilize photography and its veneer of "truth" to suggest that the viewer is looking at reality. They start as film negatives and end up as Fuji prints, too.

This is a wonderful discussion. You really go deep with your thinking, inspiring the interested reader to think for himself about things at least i would have hardly thought of otherwise. However, my conclusions differ from yours.

If digital imaging was no writing, then what about your post? And my comment, plus all the others? Put this way they are not written, too! Just digital bits in a virtual environment. But definitely you and the commenters, well, some of them ;-), did engage in the act of writing, didn't they? So we could say: there is no writing anymore. Or we could say: writing has changed on a technical basis, it has become much more abstract.

However, i do get your point and finally admit to it, but not without adding something: it is not photography any longer, but it is photography now. (Sit down face against the wall and meditate about this one a year or two. *g*)

I guess I don't substantively dissagree, but I think you have the emphasis on the wrong sylable (as some used to say). I think what you are on about is realy more to do with the reproduction (printing) than the recording.
It is my impression that many artists moved from chemical to digital printing before moving from film to digital capture. Granted you can't do a chemical print from a digital capture, but if you already print digitally what difference does that make?
It seems from your first post that you don't think it is photography if its not a chemical process, and that your motivation for this is related to the faithfull recording of the image projected by a lens. But is using color film photography and BW not? Surely the image projected by the lens is a color image.
I suggest that what makes it photography is the use of a lens to project an image onto a recoding device. Muck about too much with that record and it stops being photography someplace. But trying to define a bright line distinction someplace doesn't work.
No doubt electro optical (EO) sensors have some different imaging charactoristics than film, and I would be interested to hear about them. But I think the notions that film involves a more direct capture than an EO device and that film is physical and EO is not are wrong. Film is not imutably changed at the time of exposure (else you wouln't mind opening the camera back right after the shot), just ireversibly. An EO device captures photons in its wells resulting in a charge build up. This is in fact a physical process. The charge is then read out (as a low current voltage I think), digitized and written to a storage card. That might sound involved but a similarly detailed description of film chemestry is likely to be prety involved as well.
M Reichmann over at LL has written about the similarity of digital raw files and film negatives, refering to them both as containing a latent image that must be developed to make a photograph. That makes sens to me.
Perhaps the change from the films of 10 years ago to EO sensors is somewhat akin to the various changes in film chemestry since the dawn of photography.

"People, I had to be pedantic with y'all, but for anything to be written with light, it stands to reason that something needs to be written. Nothing's written on a sensor. A sensor just passes along a signal, which then gets passed along again many more times."

Er, Mike, does it mean that anything written on a computer is not written at all? What have I been doing for the last 15-20 years?

What about palimpsests? Were the earlier layers somehow not-written because they were subsequently erased?

As to the usage of "digital photography," it's just one of those coinages that abound in all languages. Like "electric guitar". The words "digital" and "electric" are just modifiers while the basic meaning is still the same.

Actually, "electric guitar" is a perfect example. The fact that you get the final result by moving a wire in a magnetic field instead of relying on acoustic properties of wood is beside the point. The fact that the sound from an electric guitar is different than the sound from an acoustic guitar is beside the point. They are both guitars, they are tuned in the same way, they are played in basically the same way. Furthermore, the noun has acquired other modifiers - "acoustic" or "classical" - to distinguish the older version of the instrument. Nobody assumes that older version is the default anymore.

The same thing is certainly going to happen with photography. While "digital photography" is still new enough to be noticeable, there are already people who talk about "analog" or "film" photography. What's more, the final result from a digital camera is less different from the results of a film camera than the sound of an electric guitar is different from the sound of an acoustic guitar.

I fully agree with what everyone has said. My only concern is that if the fence were removed I would have nothing to sit on.

The comparison to photography and music isn't very good. A photographic original (negative/positive) has the ability to speak of a physical truth like no other graphical medium. There is a big difference between recording a single track live performance and a multi track studio recording. The latter will be easy to manipulate, the former not. The single track recording will in many ways act as a real time record of the performance, while the multi track will record fragments of the performance that can me manipulated and altered beyond recognition. Today when a band records a live album it is highly manipulated in the studio. Besides all the digital filters that manipulate the sound in the first place, tracks are replaced, re-recorded etc. In the end you get the product that the "artist" envisioned, but you don't get a record of the event that took place, just fragments of it.

'Remove the fence' is a red herring.

Let's not try to rehash etymology and linguistics [BTW, CTein, it's Greek not Latin] as, IIRC, Mike, you have a university degree in Philosophy, so you and I at least know how to manipulate words to fit our needs.

Back to the fence. Since when have photographers - even journalistic ones - not manipulated their image they way you think differentiates digital from film? Grnated, with a digitised photo you can wait till after the fact while, if manipulation is defined narrowly as you do, with non-volatile media you have to manipulate beforehand.

You do not want the fence in your image*, well, break it down before you push the trigger. Movie makers have done so for the past 100 years; thinking about it, many SFX before rotoscoping and digital depended on selective manipulation of the negative, scratching and painting away or into. OTOH, the negative may be the photo proper, it may contain a picture and an image but it is not what most people understand when talking about a 'photograph'. It's the print that matters.

Obviously it is easier to put something in the image then to take it away. Like, say, some bottles [unfortunately I cannot post an example here], a cow, a jumping dog. I need a cow in front of a busy street? I bring it with me. Or I can photograph busy street and cow separately and combine them in the darkroom, digital or chemical, into a new negative. Georges Melies did that as early as the beginning of the 20th century; I faintly remember a French [?] conspiracy thriller from the 70s or early 80s - forgotten the name - in which a perfectly manipulated photo of a high-ranking politician was the key point. That was before digital and Photoshop.

So, where are the deep, structural differences between capturing light with a disposable medium [= film; once used never to be used again] and a reusable medium [= electronic capturing device; sensor]? The only one I can see is the before the fact-after the fact manipulation; with film I had to think more about technicalities before pushing the button, digitising lets me [easier] do something after I saved the data.

*Mind that I distinguish between photo [purely technical, absolved from any content], picture [the content of a photo as a representation of 'what there was'] and image [content with meaning beyond pure representation of objects; multi-layered]

I think that there are several other aspects to manipulating images or photographs, that have not been mentioned:

Here are some questions that might help to contribute to the discussion:

1. Is the purpose of taking photographs purely/mostly/somehow/not at all documentory?

2. Is the "pictured" reality altered by selecting the point of view, the field of view, the depth of field? If so, how?

3. If photographs (or digital images) are shown to anyone else than the photographer, do the negatives get displayed? If not (obviously not!): How can you then trust the depicted scene?

4. Does any camera record the scene exactly as the photographer saw it? Or as other people saw it?

In my (humble) opinion: This is an interesting discussion (thank you!) and a lot of the the thoughts mentioned here are about trusting depicted scenes to be real/true/what you think or want them show.

The alteration/manipulation argument is indeed a red herring. The crucial element in your definition of "real" photography is that the light creates a physical artefact like the scorch mark you made on your school desk with a magnifying glass or the shadows burned onto surfaces by the Hiroshima blast

Mike, it's great having you back in full flow. Let me give a small illustration that may touch on your argument.

In the Old Days I did ethnographic photography, which meant that I took colored slides of people and scenes in order to illustrate an argument or explanation. I sent the rolls off to be processed, got back whatever the machine had produced, and then picked the best ones for lectures or publication. So there things were pretty simple: whatever that process produced was something I, and everybody else, treated as plain unadorned information. Even when some publisher got hold of them, they appeared pretty much as they came out of the box. Ah, the old days.

Nowadays I take digital shots, but I have taken a fatal step: I shoot in RAW. This seemed a good idea at the time, but in one way this is really regress, since what was plain and effective before has now become complex and ambiguous. In the place of a simple machine (off camera, so to speak)I am now faced with all those decisions and manipulations that I know about (and there are many more lurking in the background I don't know about). So now I have to work to make authenticity, whereas before it just popped out of the little plastic box with the slides.

Mike, I agree with you completely. I could show you any number of published slides that recorded moments that--for me anyway--we're quite remarkable. Let's say that serendepity gets involved if you work hard enough for hours on end. In the pre-Photoshop days, people used to say "how did you ever capture that?" Now that we have Photoshop, comments inevitably are about Photoshop or did you use a digital camera? Same photos, but the meaning has changed. Paradigm shift.

At this point, maybe we should all become the eye, hand, pencil and paper of Henri Cartier Bresson. Perhaps the truest method of capturing the reality before us.

My thinking that this is a non issue probably comes from being a drawer/painter first, then a photographer, as was HCB. Cameras are just fancy sketching/painting tools, a means to an end.

I know I espouse the print as a final object; but I occasionally take "photos" of fine art, always digitally and sometimes with the addition of slide film, and there is seldom a print made by me, the end result being a shiny plastic disc, for which I receive a piece of paper with a signature affixed. In this endeavor I utilize both drawing/painting skills, but all of the skills I've acquired using cameras. Is this not photography, even if it bleeds no chemicals?

Ahhh, hell, I'll cash the check, and call it work.


It was harder to manipulate photos pre-digital but still done.

In the 80s, when I was in high school, a photo was taken of my entire class (we had a small senior class - 60 students) for the yearbook. Unfortunately, a couple of students were giving "the bird".

Our art teacher corrected the photo by making a very large enlargement and then carefully painting out the raised fingers (thankfully there was plain blue sky behind them). He then took a photograph of the resulting image and submitted that to the yearbook company. (A well known image adjustment technique from the past.)

A more interesting situation was revealed to me in college. An enterprising student had taken a picture of a distant out-of-state driver's license. He then blew it up so that the image of the person was life-sized. He painted over the person with the background color (this was prior to the "holographic" images embedded in the background). He would then take pictures of people in front of the image to make fake IDs.

Although it is a minor nit-pick, it should be noted that there are situations where film distorts what the lens "sees" (and I'm not talking about color and contrast).

If you take images of lights far off in the distance at night with digital versus film, the film will make the lights appear larger because of interlayer scattering. The digital camera will get the relative size correct. I find the film representation more pleasing, but still not what the lens saw.

(This is on 35mm film. You could switch to larger film formats and minimize the effect.)

Photography is a big tent. Millions of people take their memory sticks and sd cards to the local drug store to get prints of the family barbeque. I imagine the only difference they see in analogue and digital is the ability to make sure you didn't cut off Uncle Bob's head before you take the 'film' to be processed.

Photo Journalists are committed not only to not manipulating the shot after the fact but also before pressing the shutter by 'staging' the news event. Directing their subjects or selectively choosing what to shoot in a way that creates a complete lie. This has been just as common as post manipulation and works just as well with analog media.

So I don't buy that film or any other medium or any inanimate object has some inherent integrity. Only people can lie or tell the truth as they see it. It's informative to watch the news as broadcast from different countries and cultures you would not believe they are talking about the same events.

Even a caption can alter a picture dramatically. Witness the firestorm of controversy over a picture that would not have stirred any controversy at all if the photographer (Michael R.) had not given it the title "Lolita" -sharing with the viewer perhaps more then they wanted to know about how a middle aged white photographer viewed what looked like a 12 or 13 year old impoverished Brazilian child. The picture could easily have been read in the opposite fashion as something very innocent and sweet if not for the title.

This is an argument about the "obvious". Of course there is a physical difference between film and digital image recording. I wonder why it is necessary to remind the world of this fact.

Yes, both digital and analogue images can be modified. The only difference, in the entire argument, is that digital images are more easily manipulated than the film image. As far as I can deduce, this is the only argument being made of any substance.

The parallel argument that "there's still a huge gap between the photography of direct impression and the imaging of highly manipulable and mutable pixels" is simply one of expertise. The 1960's expert re-toucher / airbrush magician could do (with skill and time) wonders to modify images. Now Uncle Harry can do similar things easily if he has some comfort with a computer. The only difference between the two image systems is the skill required to do a "good job" with the image.

This can be rephrased: for a given level of technical / craft skill, many more complex and devious mutations of the image are possible with digital rather than film images.

I certainly agree with your assertions that taking an image into the digital space can allow the creation of "non-factual" images easily. In the old days, this was possible but difficult. My interpretation is that this simply has added to the flexibility of photography.

Chauvinists would consider this bad. Only a "photographer" should be allowed to make a good 8x10 print - it is simply terrible that Aunt Anne can now retouch and print an excellent photograph on her ink jet printer or take it to Costco for a chemical print.

It is, as Mike says, the difficulty of making changes to film images wherein the difference lies. I think this gets raised right at the beginning of the image-making process. Selection of film and understanding how a particular emulsion's characteristics will reveal the desired image are elements that have little digital counterpart. (Selecting ISO is the closest thing in digital, but it isn't nearly as complex.)

With film, you know when you are shooting that you probably will be doing limited post-exposure manipulation at most -- some dodging and burning, some cropping. With digital,you know going in that you have a much wider, and easier, toolbox for manipulation. I don't know about others, but this affects my approach to the process.

So does the fact that digital images are "free." That allows you to take many more images, a capability that can be used to be sloppy, expecting that one of the images will be close to what you want, but it also allows you to experiment in ways you might not with film as the cash register in your head goes ka-ching with each snap of the shutter.

Whether those differences are sufficient to call for disassociating digital image making from "photography," is a matter of opinion. I think they are not. But that there are fundamental differences, and that those differences often are (not "must be," but "often are") visible in the result is undeniable.

#5. It is not the sensor what is to be compared to the film, but the memory card, which is where the data is actually written / recorded. The sensor, as you said, compares to our eyes, and to the lens. The memory card compares to our brain (mind) and the film, where the image is stored.

So, yes, digital photography is still writing with light, regardless of the transformations of energy that get the original subject to be transported as light to the lens/camera and then translated electronically into data, which is then readable -by the proper software- as an image resembling the subject itself.

#6. The negative is equivalent to the RAW master file. Old school photographers did not alter the negative, but worked the variations on sensitive paper and chemicals. Now, digital photographers rather keep and store the RAW file as it is, pure data, and work on duplicates to be "developed", and on conversions of it into other formats in order to perfect / correct / edit and print them.

Few photographers, however, realize the importance of the RAW file as the very source and master of their works.

I think the subjects that have been discussed are far more important than many would like them to be. While there is something as being too theoretical, we are in fact discussing the most important aspects of photography as a medium and art form.

We al know that photography isn’t truth in a box and that prints are just paper with images on them. As a visual medium though, there is nothing that comes as close to representing how something looked like at a certain moment in time as photography (including film). It is a far better record than anything stored or made from our own memory and imagination. That is why photography can be used as evidence in a court of law, as a witness statement in newspapers or as snapshots of historical events in a family photo album.

As kids we learn how images are two-dimensional representations of the visual world. Even small children can make the distinction between a cartoon and a film or a painting and a photograph. The latter two are in fact illusions of a historic reality. In fact we learn through a cognitive process a visual language that makes our brain associate images with real world objects, just as words are associated with memories of objects, feelings and experiences.

The important distinction is one of truth. It is important in many circumstances for a viewer to know if the photograph he is looking at is a record of what the camera captured through a mechanical-chemical-electronical (whatever) process pointed at a certain place at a certain moment in time, or if the photographer has altered the film or RAW file to a degree that makes the image more a subjective than an objective representation of that scene.

The transformation from film to digital is an important one. It is undebatable that manipulation is more widespread and easy than before. As such both photographers and viewers of photography will have to alter their perception of the medium and question it’s ability to represent truth. Art is no exact science, but evolve through discussion and practice. As professional photographers I think we are obliged to reflect on the issue and understand that it affects how the public perceives our work. It isn’t just an aesthetical issue, it is one of credibility that greatly affect the entire medium and profession of photography. A photograph is always an image, but an image isn’t always a photograph.

Dear Dierk,

Greek. Err, yup. I knew that. Sigh.

What's the typing equivalent of 'dyslexic'-- when your brain thinks one thing and your fingers type something else and you don't even notice? I got it.

Can't blame it on my education-- I never took Latin.)

pax / easily-confused Ctein

This whole discussion looks like a continuation of the famous Pictorialist versus Group f.64 debates between Ansel Adams and William Mortensen in Camera Craft magazine. I'd recommend A.D. Coleman's essay "Conspicuous by his absence: concerning the mysterious disappearance of William Mortensen", reproduced in his book "Depth of Field".

I believe that the transition to digital photography has been so disruptive that we are all struggling one way or another with its effects. I attended a three day photography symposium recently with a bunch of world-class photographers, and 90% of the questions from the audience were about digital versus traditional, not the issues raised by the work of these photographers and curators.

By the way, it is sometimes mentioned that William Henry Fox Talbot's first photography exhibition took place at the house of his neighbour, Charles Babbage, the inventor of the computer...

Dear Mike

Even though some of your premesis might be right, your conclusion doesn't follow logically from them.
You claim that there is a technical difference between a negative and a sensor: the first one is permanently altered when struck by light, the other one is just recording data, not altered physically or chemically.
I can accept that. But what are the implications of this?
You argue that the negative is more objective, because it is hard to manipulate, while the data recorded by a sensor can be easily manipulated.
But in the same time you rightly acknowledge, that there are in fact a lot of empirical evidence, that pre-digital photos can be and has been manipulated in a number of ways.
In other words: it is not impossible to manipulate a film-based photograph. On the other hand, I think you will agree, that it is at least possible to produce digital pictures which are just as "true" as a darkroom print from a negative, by printing directly from the file, without photoshopping.
In fact, in an earlier post you proposed an illustration of analog vs. digital in relation to manipulation not as opposite, but as a continuum - where film is nearer to but not totally objective and digital is nearer to but not totally imaginative. Let's accept that you are right in this.
But logically, if A and B represents the opposite ends of a continuum in relation to C, you can not in the same time argue from C that A and B are mutually exclusive.


Great points on comparing the levels of difficulty between the traditional analog/photo/chemo approach and digital. I would take it just one step further. It is not so much what can be done than what is done. As you said, with the digital process, it is so easy that it amounts to "play" at times, and with the analog process, it is way harder but not completely impossible. When I'm in my darkroom, my manipulations consist 100% of simply dodging and burning. I would guess that that is the case with most traditional analog photographers, a small percentage going further to totally remove or add details.

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