To Photoshop or not to Photoshop?
I read somewhere that the pioneering photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, refused, on principle, to crop his photographs. Now, it is not for me to criticize a genius and if that was a discipline M. Cartier-Bresson wished to impose upon himself, then I will not question his right nor his reason to do so. But at the same time, I do not feel obliged to follow principles with which I disagree, regardless of M. Cartier-Bresson’s stature.
I do agree that discipline leads to quality outcomes. A photographer who shoots without discipline and “fixes” the image in post-production is compromising quality to indulge his or her laziness. A photographer, on the other hand, who puts maximum effort into capturing the shot, should not be denied the opportunity to enhance the final product using legitimate post-production techniques.
I used to work in the darkroom of a commercial photography studio and we used many techniques to improve the end product, including: cropping, dodging, burning, masking and filtering and spotting the final print. Photoshop, and other image manipulation software programs, are simply a darkroom without the mess – the digital equivalent of the enlarger, developer, stop-batch, fixer, wash and drier we used in the dark old days.
The purists may call it “cheating” but what is an exposure anyway if not an abstraction from reality. As soon as the camera captures that split second of light and registers it on film or in pixels, it becomes a whole new and different reality from that which was in front of the lens at that same instant. Consequently, the capture of light on the recording medium is the first and not necessarily the last transformation to take place in creating a photographic image. Indeed, the frame chosen by the photographer in the first place intentionally excludes elements lying outside the selected frame so the photographer is already choosing what the viewer can and cannot see. And another abstraction we are all familar with and never seem to question is the use of Black and White. Apart from a shot of a zebra standing in front of a white wall, when is reality really black and white? In the days of film, the photographer would choose to shoot B&W film. In our contemporary digital world, the photographer often shoots in colour and converts the image to B&W in the digital darkroom (e.g. using Photoshop).
Personally, and I am not decreeing this as a dogma for anyone else to follow, my objective is to create an image that stands on its own merit without reference to the scene or context from which it was extracted; and if that entails post-capture manipulation, then so be it. In the realm of painting, the Impressionists, Expressionists and Cubists all exercised their right to distort their subject in pursuit of the message they were trying to convey. Why should artists working in the photographic medium be denied the same freedom? Why must the integrity of the image as a representation of reality be upheld at the expense of the opportunity to create a more powerful message by manipulating the image to emphasize its key (message bearing) elements, or even create a totally new dialogue between the photographer and the viewer.
I can only think of one circumstance where the integrity of the image is paramount – and that is in the case of photo rapportage, where the truth is the fundamental principle. And even then, the photographer must be allowed some latitude to emphasize (but not distort) the truth.
How then, to distinguish between the two? My own guidelines are this: if I am reporting an historical fact, I will not manipulate the image in a way that falsifies the information it conveys. However, I have no compunction about removing irrelevant elements from a photograph where they create a disctraction. On the other hand, if the photograph is intended to create a mood or an impression and is not intended to convey specific information about a person or a place, I feel entitled to use whatever creative means are at my disposal to achieve the outcome to which I aspire.
Take a look at the two photographs below:
The scene I was trying to capture was the couple walking hand-in-hand towards the fountain. The other people in the frame contributed nothing to the narrative and in my opinion, actually detracted from it. Had I waited for the extraneous people to vacate the frame, the central couple would have gone too and since the shot depended entirely upon them, I felt that I had no choice but to shoot when I did.
So, I used Photoshop to remove the unwanted characters. I think you will agree that the result is a simpler and more effective image.
Had I not shown you the original image, you would have been none the wiser. The question is: now that you know, do you feel cheated; that I have witheld some crucial information from you; or do you agree with me that the people other than the couple were irrelevant and their removal enhances the end product?
In the end, for the viewer, the image becomes the only reality; and where the work exists independently of any other reality, I believe that the photographer should be permitted any means at his or her disposal to achieve the desired result. This is my position; but I’d be happy to hear any arguments to the contrary.
 BTW: I use the term “Photoshop” here generically, much as one would use the term “Google” as a synonym for search or use “Hoover” as a synonym for vacuum cleaner.