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Wednesday, 11 March 2009


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Mike, I agree. I can look at a heavily manipulated image (it used to be razor-sharpened, now, invariably, it's HDR), and appreciate the skill that went into making a snap look like art, but as a bluff old traditionalist, I'd prefer to admire the photographer's eye, rather than the software abilities of a photoshop employee. The latter should be the amiable assistant, not the cure.

It's funny that you chose this Munkacsi photo of Hepburn, which is currently on display at the International Center for Photography (in NYC), alongside a "radically cropped" (ICP's words) version of the same, in which Hepburn fills most of the frame. (The very small show is called "Munkacsi's Lost Archives"). The juxtaposition of the original with the severely cropped version is intended, I believe, to show how significantly Munkacsi cropped many of his photos (the famous one of the soccer goalkeeper is another good example), and how this radical cropping improved upon the original. (The press release says that a goal of the exhibit is to "clarify his working methods and uncover the secrets behind his most famous images.").

How this fits into the whole Photoshopping discussion, I'm not sure. Of course radical cropping is not photoshopping, but, well ...

Mike, I'm 100% with you.

Could not agree more. I love looking at well done photography but what I call digital art which includes manipulated images, including the HDR craze today is not appealing yo me. Of course I am somewhat of an anachronism, a large format film photographer.

Mike, you are not, as I recall, completely uninterested in other arts, even other visual arts. Yet every single one of them is far more removed from reality than the most Photoshopped photograph is. Is being mathematically related to reality (tones are remapped &c. anyway) a requirement in your mind only for photographic art, not for other art? Or what's the issue?

The heavy PS'ing you see on so many photo sites is gimmicky & trendy. Someone gets rave reviews for the latest "look" and everyone else starts doing the same thing. Ultimately, it's just a look, and it's applied to the same range of photographs you see without the look. A lot of mediocre stuff and a bit of good stuff.

The manipulation discussed in the previous post is different IMO as the intent is to not look PS'ed but to create a false reality. Ultimately, the end results is the same, though - the success of the resulting image still relies more on the starting point than the PSing in my eyes, though there seem to be an awful lot of people out there who are wowed by dramatic effects. Hmmm ... that reminds me of a writeup I read recently on entertainers like Celine Dion who emote with every ounce of energy in every song they sing far beyond the point of annoyance; beyond what's appropriate for the song; making the vocals seem like work instead of making them seem easy ... yet people eat that up, too.

I'm pretty much in agreement. Part of my appreciation for various art forms has something to do with an appreciation for the craft. And as much as I can appreciate that good digital imaging is a craft that's difficult to master, I can't get excited about it seeing what someone creates with a Wacom tablet and a good working knowledge of adjustment layers.

I can't see a contradiction there. We're all interested in different things for different reasons, no?


depends on whether you are interested in the photograph or the image in the end. there are great fashion photographs which are rarely exhibited in their raw form for the fashion industry doesn't try to sell the picture but the product. therefore the industry tries to close the gap between the shown product and the image representing this product which process is often only possible through excessive use of retouching.

there are some good and interesting fashion photographs though, just don't look for them in the final image.

And actually, "macrame and shoes and pork futures" might sound dismissive, as though those are things that aren't worth being interested in. All I mean to say is that other people are interested in lots of I things I'm not.


All photos are accurate. None of them is the truth. ~Richard Avedon

Mike, you say:
"The more fake a photograph becomes, the more it gives up its potential to tell me something...real...."

Perhaps you're commenting on the artistry of such work. (If you notice it, it's not done well.) To me, in the hands of an artist, it can be 'real.'

I find myself shooting with less adjustments, but I don't rule out such efforts. Maybe a clearer line between 'manipulated' and 'not' is needed-- differentiating photographs from Photoshop creations.

Consider: Cezanne was just manipulating paint, but he got a lot of mileage from doing so...

It seems to me that all these recent discussions concerning image manipulation and real photography vs some other kind of photography are really about change. Some people embrace change and exploit it as completely as possible. Others do not.

Exploring the edges of technology is a natural act of human curiosity. Finding the edges helps one understand the creative potential available within the technology. Not everyone is comfortable exploring beyond traditional bounds.

"We are all the subjects of impressions, and some of use seek to convey the impressions to others. In the art of communicating impressions lies the power of generalizing without losing that logical connection of parts to the whole which satisfies the mind."
Camille Pissaro

When it comes to the advertising stuff, couldn't agree more. Real women look so much better.

The first thing I notice in the Munkacsi photo is the plane. What is it? My first guess was a Fairchild but I think not upon a closer look.

Umm, uhh, speaking of Photoshop, that photo of Ms. Hepburn might benefit from a few basic tweaks in Curves.

The difference between painting and photography is that everybody accepts the fact that paintings are manipulated and always were; at the height of the Renaissance, or later in the Baroque, when painting was perhaps at its most "realistic," everybody knew that the artist hadn't actually seen the saint portrayed in the photo...

The problem with photo manipulation breaks down into several different areas, but two of them are outright fakery (changing the content of the photo in one way or another) and poor taste, which is generally involved in things like HDR. HDR may or may not be appropriate (or the amount of it used may or may not be) but that's more a matter of taste. Fakery -- removing people from photos, or pumping up their muscles, or splicing bodies, etc., is an entirely different issue. The problem with fakery is that you might create a really terrific photo, one that even Mike would approve of, because the tools to do that are now so good that you might very well get away with it. The famous Photoshopped photo from Iraq, in which two photos were spliced together to make it look like an armed American GI was frightening a small child and her father, is an example of these pernicious possibilities, because it was intended to have a specific political impact -- using an incident that never took place. The guy was caught, but only because of a major slip in his Photoshop technique. A better trained Photoshop artist might well have gotten away with it. It *was* a terrific photo, the kind that can make a career, and redirect a war effort -- but it was faked.


I find myself approaching photography with a philosophy to that governing my creative non-fiction. In both cases, the goal is to be an accurate witness of the world, yet both involve a bit of tidying up around the edges so that the world in view has a clear message. You cut out the irrelevant or the uninteresting, but do as little as possible to what remains.

Cropping to me is acceptable, therefore, as are minor color and tone and curve tweaks that bring the digital image as recorded by the sensor back in line with the subject as seen by the human eye.

Once it goes beyond that, it moves into the realm of visual fiction for me. And, just as I'm not all that fond of realist fiction (I prefer sci-fi and fantasy) I prefer my fictional art to be upfront about it. If you're going to bother with fantasy, you might as well embrace it.

That's my problem with most of the Photoshop abuse; it tries to have the freedom of the fictional while not losing the authority of the nonfiction image, and misses the point of both approaches.

There is straight photography, and then there is digital illustration. They are not the same thing. Straight photography is a direct view of some aspect of the world with no extra elements added. Digital illustration might start with some elements of photography but these are combined and manipulated to produce some fantasy image, e.g. most magazine advertising. The problem with most of this work is that is shows how limited are the imaginations of the people producing it; perfect skin women, babies in bubbles floating over the planet & gazing in awe, dragons flying over apocalyptic landscapes. Mostly banal cliches.

Also, the suggestion that traditional painting somehow justifies this manipulation is illogical. The painter has no choice but to start with a blank canvas & paint their view of the world. The photograph starts in a more objective way & the post manipulation is not a necessary part of the process. It's mostly done by people whose photos are not good enough to start with.

Is blogging considered "not fashionable" anymore? :)

So, I've got a friend who's been going through a rough post-partum period, with a difficult older child, a cranky baby, and a general, "Oh my god, is this really my life?" crisis. She's an actress, but she hasn't worked for over a year.

Casting about for some way to help her feel better about herself, I offered to do a new headshot. Now, she's really very pretty, and what's more, she has a sharp and sparkling personality that she communicates very well through her face. But with the depression and general exhaustion, she's pretty down on her own appearance.

I did a quick shoot, and it really was very easy to get some great pictures. She still smiles easily, and has a talent for posing and following direction, so it was no problem to get the light exactly right. I got some nice shots of her children, too, which she really appreciated.

But I still retouched her photos: I did a couple of simple patches to remove the bags from under her eyes. I left the freckles, the wrinkles, and the rest of the little age blemishes. And when I gave the prints, she literally squealed, "They're gorgeous!"

That little white lie made her happier than I'd seen her in years. It boosted her self-esteem, I hope. They weren't quite the reality of a mother suffering from fatigue and depression, but they were the reality of a woman I've known for twenty years aging gracefully.

It's easy for me to look at an unedited portrait that I took and say, "That's not the way it really looked." The nose is distorted by the lens, the red in the skin is drawn up and blotchy, or the frozen expression just can't convey the way a face looks as it moves. After all, we don't see pictures. We see sequences, and are trained to believe that they are single moments. It's banal to note that the camera lies, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.

When it comes to my friend, I would never have noticed the bags under her eyes if I hadn't taken those pictures. Even as sad as she was, her face is always moving, always sparkling. To me, leaving the image unretouched would have been the real lie.


As this is one of my best photos (most interesting in flickr) merely has a contrast adjustment.

I feel that editing images only by using the color properties that can be found within the RAW files is acceptable to my own terms. I feel that using programs as Lightroom, which focuses only on contrast, brightness & color values, nowdays offering localized value changes using a "brush". Somehow i feel that i am tuning the original image without compromising it's magic, but if i take it to photoshop and start putting all kinds of layer effects and such i feel like cheating.

How about moving pictures, that is photography with 24 or more frames per second? What about teh trend towards highly manipulated photography in these movies, motion pictures, films as they are called?

Doesn't Lord of the Rings or Hellboy 2 or Pan's Labyrinth or even Jackson's King Kong*, Back to the Future, Schindler's List, The Wizard of Oz offer anything? To name but a very few taken out of my hat randomly.

Let's be quite clear, it is alright to state ones personal tastes - I don't like hough [knuckle of pork] - but as a professional writer shouldn't one be careful to not be too ambiguous about it, making too much of it, making it read like a general sentiment?

*Just to be clear, I think Jackson's King Kong is a bad movie, it's overlong [in every single scene but one], pretentious, sometimes nonsensical in a bad way, doesn't understand its subject. Nebertheless, it's obviously bad on quite another level than, say, American Pie 4 or Porky's.

Digitally processed photographs are not fake or phony or dishonest unless they are represented to be a faithful recording of a moment in time. You may not like some particular technique, digital or not, that is applied to an image but that does not make the image any more honest or dishonest than the original. Just different.

Photojournalism has guidelines (often smudged) that prohibit most image manipulation. Other types of images such as those used in medicine must also be accurate. I'd guess that most of the people involved in this discussion are not journalists or a physicians and are not bound to produce so called 'honest' images. We are free to create what we wish from our source material.

As far as I'm concerned 'digital art' is and photographic image processed digitally that strikes me as an artful depiction of some subject.

Painters start with a blank canvas. Photographers start with a blank sensor or film. The painter makes marks on the canvas manually. The photographer uses and automatic process to record the marks. Both are free to continue making marks until they are satisfied with the results.

"I'd guess that most of the people involved in this discussion are not journalists or a physicians and are not bound to produce so called 'honest' images. We are free to create what we wish from our source material."

I didn't say Word One about what anyone is bound to produce. I said I don't like looking at fabricated images and that they don't satisfy me. Which is entirely true.


I think what is missing from most digital manipulation is a "continuity of vision". In other words, someone takes a photo (hopefully with some final result in mind) and then after the fact starts playing with it.

The net result is trying to turn a picture into something it isn't.

On the other hand, if the picture is taken with a subsequent digital manipulation in mind, the final result can be very successful.

In the first situation, the photo is already a finished product. If it is a good photo, there is probably little that can be done to it without subtracting from what made it a good photo in the first place. If it is not a good photo ... silk purse/sow's ear.

In the second case, the photo is not "complete" it is simply a stage in a preconceived process.

I guess the easiest example would be when you are composing a shot and you just know it will be a B&W image - the picture isn't completed until you "manipulate" the color image into B&W on your computer.

@John - I'm pretty sure the aircraft is one of the WACO S series.



"I didn't say Word One about what anyone is bound to produce. I said I don't like looking at fabricated images and that they don't satisfy me. Which is entirely true."

I appreciate that but you are not the only person contributing to this thread. Others have been sharper in their criticism.

By the way I think your reply stretches your own posting guidelines. My comments were based upon the content of the thread. Yours are very pointedly directed at me.

I'll consider banning myself.


I thought the issue is not about manipulation as such. For black and white where you only have a gray scale to manipulate, a lot have been done by, say, Ansel Adams. If your final product is what you think other shall see, PS or not is not the issue.

The issue is that you are trying to tell a lie, to use photos to sell a product that is not there but you pretend it was there. Even worst, it seems at least the girls "got it" and affected. I do not know. If you see a tan skin man with 6 pack, would you really be hurt. May be sub-conscious but not really. "Hard work to keep that ... it is an addict to do those exercise ..." But given so many make-up and slim you up advertisement (at least here), I think the telling lies bit is the problem.

We have to accept PS, freedom of speech/artistic expression. Who would not use some levels, cropping, ... etc. As a matter of degree and as long as we knows that is a lies (a Hotel advertisement with all those lighting effect etc. or Playboy girls with air bushes etc.), well, not sure. A picture (and video) of a bank that is very grand and hence safe ... (as all banking advertisement are ... broader line.

But as point out in the video, to explicitly try to tell the best lies is not acceptable - in news ... definitely no no but even in some advertisement as in the video, it would be an issue.

Still, do not go too far.


On digital manipulation...
Digital manipulation adds a wideopen creative dimension to photography. With the unusually large number of photographers (amateur and pro) that exist today I feel that extra dimension is critical today.

What I suspect most people are objecting to in HDR, "Franken-model", and various other digital techniques is the speed, and extent to which, it becomes "democratized" (once one person does it, everyone does it - and overdoes it).

Almost every time I see a new photographic technique, I usually enjoy it. After I see it for the millionth time, I kinda relate to all of the "ban digital manipulation" people.

One way to think about this issue (for the older readers) is:
Remember how cool it was to see your first solarized image. Now think how tired you were of seeing solarization and all of its variants and artistic outgrowths by the mid-70s.


On John Camp's point about the "The famous [digitally-manipulated] photo from Iraq"...

I believe whole heartedly that news agencies should be required to maintain RAW files of all images they publish.

Further, I believe it should become standard that all images published should have the photographer credited along with the GPS coordinates and time the shutter was released.

None of that guarantees the integrity of all journalistic images. However, it does increase the ability to link photos from multiple photographers witnessing the same event.

If you're a manipulator, I only have to catch you once.

"I didn't say Word One about what anyone is bound to produce. I said I don't like looking at fabricated images and that they don't satisfy me. Which is entirely true."

Mike, I'm not trying to be disrespectful in any way, but are your feelings based on how you define what a photograph is, or is it that you truly dislike every photograph ever created that is not a straight photograph? I could certainly understand your feelings if the former is the case, but truly disliking all "non-straight" photography stretches credulity. Some of these manipulated images are factually spectacular and beautiful. It would be like saying that Victoria Falls and other wonders are not beautiful and I dislike them.

I disagree with Ken White. Photographer friends of mine who regularly visit Yellowstone National Park told me recently that Park Rangers mentioned to them that they frequently get comments from visitors who are disappointed because the colors of objects in the Park are not as brilliant and saturated as they are in photographs. I assume these visitors have seen digitally manipulated images and, in this circumstance, the images are, in an important sense, fake and dishonest. You can call such images digital art if you wish, but I hope that my photographs help people to see things rather than cause them to be disappointed.

It's not an absolute statement of ideology, just a tendency. I don't see photographs as being just another form of visual art like a painting or an etching. They have a sensical, recoverable connection to the world, to the "pretext"--that is, to what was in front of the lens when the photograph was made. (For instance, when John Robison asks what kind of plane it is, he's expressing the faith that we all have in photography: that there was a plane there! That simplifying it, but that's the essence, too.) Of course "manipulated" is a spectrum, and if a fabricated photo-whatever is legitimately expressive I think I'm as susceptible to being accepting of it as anyone else is. I try to remain open to being convinced by peoples' work. But I tend to look at photographs as a way of learning about the world, and I'm more interested in photographs that have an "evidence-function." I'm generally just not very interested in photographs as decoration, or style.

I would generally rather look at police evidence photographs, or insurance record photographs, or survey photographs, or I.D. photographs, or demotic snapshots than poor attempts at prettified pictures that are meant to be decor.

Several commenters have also indicated an assumption that I'm being prescriptive. I'm not. As far as I know, I don't have that power. As I always say, I'd advocating, not arbitrating. That is, advocating for my own opinion, not arbitrating what other peoples' opinion should be. I may be the host of this site, but what I say is still just my own view of things.


Mike, I appreciate your explanation, and I thankyou for taking the time. I suspect that it's good that we have "purists" who can keep us grounded to the original spirit of photography no matter where digital photography may "evolve."

I know that if I like a photograph, I just like it, even if it shatters my original perception of what a photograph should be, but that's my right, as well as it is your right to be a purist. Thanks again!

I'm sorry Mike, but you're being reasonable. You know that isn't allowed on the internet ;)

The most annoying thing about photoshopped pictures is that they teach nothing about reality. They create a world that doesn't exist. I think this is also why I cannot adhere to any religion. They tell good "photoshopped" stories but they are not reality. I don't say that I don't enjoy fake pictures, I even do a lot of them myself, but don't make me believe it's reality. This is what makes street photography so fascinating in my opinion because you can learn something about reality. (my 2 cents and my first post here after reading only for a few months).

"The most annoying thing about photoshopped pictures is that they teach nothing about reality."

Strongly disagree with this! Would you say a painting teaches as nothing about reality? All any image can do is give us a perception of reality. A well PS'd image may reveal a hidden beauty, or in a factual situation, highlight a hidden detail *note I say MAY reveal! *

On the other hand, street photography thrives on the off guard moment, the incongruous and strange juxtaposition. While these can be fantastic images, they do not necessarily convey "reality" in any meaningful sense.

Put it another way - in case one, I photograph a subject against a sign which makes for a thought provoking image.

In case two I photograph subject and sign separately and merge them in PS.

Looking only at the final image, why does one have more merit than the other?



“ A well PS'd image may reveal a hidden beauty, or in a factual situation, highlight a hidden detail *note I say MAY reveal! *”

I don’t disagree with that. You can PS a picture to reveal hidden details, etc. What I had in mind is when you’re using the technique to do a “fakery”. You invent a reality that does not exist in that case.

“On the other hand, street photography thrives on the off guard moment, the incongruous and strange juxtaposition. While these can be fantastic images, they do not necessarily convey "reality" in any meaningful sense.”

It may be organized but the moment did really exist in a short fraction of time.

“Put it another way - in case one, I photograph a subject against a sign which makes for a thought provoking image.

In case two I photograph subject and sign separately and merge them in PS.
Looking only at the final image, why does one have more merit than the other?”

That’s a good question. I had to think about it for a while. Yes the result is the same and could have happened in reality. But that moment never really existed. The visual result can be appealing, no doubt about it. But it’s like a good story about how Mozart met Beethoven and talked about such and such. Could have happened. But if it did not our grasp on reality is weakened IMHO.

In the end, I have no problem with constructed photographs. It can be visually entertaining. It’s like a good ghost story, very entertaining but I don’t like when they make you believe it’s a true story.


I don't know how widespread this thought is, I don't recall reading it anywhere, but I think of altered images as varying degrees of fiction. The less manipulated examples might be akin to fact-based fiction like Capote's "In Cold Blood," or Mailer's "The Executioner's Song." Straight photography might be like non-fiction or expository prose. The wildly derived pictures, if successful, are like some poetry. The obvious point is that it's all literature.

It’s like a good ghost story, very entertaining but I don’t like when they make you believe it’s a true story.

Neither do I - so my contention is that the problem lies with how the image is presented, rather than how it is made.

As an interesting historical side line, back in the 17th century, many people were outraged when writers began producing fictional works in prose. Before hand (and speaking in generalities) verse was used for fiction, anything in prose was considered factual. An important literary question of the time was 'how can we know what is true?'



The fake of reality always is a threat on photography - in my opinion: Losing the ability to have a straight "look at life without any manipulation" might be a result of overwhelming mass media and their visual dominance, which at the same moment causes decreasing value of an original, authentic view and perspective in visualization. And also means a bigger loss: The capacity to SEE. In a certain way we start out to become blind - or maybe blindfolded - while regarding reality.

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