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Digital Manipulation – Can You Go Too Far?

The debate regarding the use of Digital Manipulation in photography has raged since the digital age first invaded the inner sanctum of the photographic world. The protagonists at each end of the spectrum we shall call The Purists and The Processors. As well as defining the combatants, we need to ponder on the history of photography, the validity of the reality of a two dimensional image and revisit the “Photography or Art?” discussion, perhaps by looking at some examples from the world of Art and Photography. This brief journey will hopefully make clear our conclusions.

In order to tackle the question “Can you go too far with Digital Manipulation?” we should define the protagonists. At one extreme are those who inherently distrust digital photography altogether, preferring the “Purity of Film” These are The Purists who dislike any kind of alteration to a photograph after it is taken, possibly tolerating some kind of processing to achieve a true reproduction of what was seen at the time of capture. At the other extreme are The Processors. These are the lovers of digital manipulation who will often spend more time post processing their image with effects such as HDR, cloning and the creation of composite images, than taking the photo in the field. Most photographers will fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

The Purist viewpoint has evolved from the historical perception that the use of the camera, which works in real time with real objects, came to be associated with communication and news reporting and as such was seen to be objective and a means to convey reality. But this is only one side of photography and even reality can be distorted by what the photographer sees, or wishes to be seen. If reality is what they seek, then black and white imagery should have been rejected out of hand as soon as colour images were possible, after all the world is not black and white. Yet its legitimacy survives because of history, not reality. The camera is merely a tool to express an idea; it is not obliged to express truth. From the day that man put pen to paper he used it to record both fact and fiction and this truth holds for photography as well.

A key element to this debate is the validity of the reality of a two dimensional image. By this we mean that the world is 3-dimensional and by the simple fact of being 2 dimensional a photograph, can only at best ever interpret reality, not be reality. The Purists standpoint has to be based on a false assumption due to this one simple fact. Our 3-dimensional world cannot be represented in 2-dimensional “facts”. An example of this is that The Purist might use a zoom lens, which clearly distorts the 3-dimensional reality as it converts the image to 2-D. A blurred background belongs to the 2-D world, as it cannot be seen unless we could stop time. Equally a fish-eye lens will give us a view that no photographer would ever see.

So is photography a form of art or a scientific discipline of its own? Photography has to be a form of art – if not what else can it be? If not Art then it is merely a tool of the journalist or historian to record a point in time but its truth is there to be abused as much as the truth of the written word. Its credibility as a recorder of truth was blown away as soon as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies after seeing Elise Wright and Frances Griffiths’ photograph of fairies in their garden in 1917! There might be a science applied to acquiring an image but as demonstrated already the image cannot ever be reality or fact, only an interpretation thereof. A photograph can convey many emotions, bring back memories and create dreams. To the photographer it is even more meaningful as he will recall the effort it took to produce. It is an expression of what someone sees in the same way that a painting is. An artist like Gainsborough who painted portraits for the gentry, produced an object that would be purchased as a thing of beauty. His client did not want a “warts and all” job of his loving wife to hang over the fireplace, he wanted her to look her best, if not better. So it was up to the artist to make sure she did. How is that different to a little airbrushing? Canaletto was known to have altered the perspective of Venice to suit his canvas and composition. This is what artists do, so why should a photographer tolerate a telegraph pole or road sign spoiling his work? Simply put a Purist will chop the pole down before he presses the shutter and the Processor will clone it out of his image afterwards. Photography then is clearly a discipline of art, just as The Impressionists and The Cubists are.

In conclusion then we have to accept that photography is an art form. Within the art form we must accept that there are many movements or schools of thought. The Purists and the Processors would be just two of these schools of thought. Neither one is the correct one. Quite simply there is no correct one. Each photographer should decide for himself where they sit in the spectrum of photography. Importantly though, once ensconced in their corner of the photographic world they must be open to all disciplines. Practice what suits them but never assume that their way is the right way or the only way. Photography is a living art form and as such is fluid and alive, it reacts to and creates fashion and style. HDR can be the vogue one month, sepia all the rage the next. If you do not embrace it, do not disparage it either and if you can do something better than someone else don’t tell them not to do it because “manipulating a bad image only produces a bad manipulated image”. Budding photographers should be encouraged to try because without trying you do not learn. Similarly, if you don’t like borders then don’t use borders but that’s your choice it does not mean that all photos should not have borders. Put simply you cannot go too far with digital manipulation just as you cannot put constraints on art. Know what you like but never assume that your taste is the only taste. Remember in the words of Jerry Lodriguss, “Writers massage the language of words; photographers massage the language of light”.