Response to “Elox”

I am writing this post in response to comments I received from “Elox” on my article on the ethics of using Photoshop to alter images.  For your convenience, I have repeated his comments in their entirity below in brown text and also for your convenience I provide a link back to the article to which they refer.

“Elox” wrote:

“The result is much much better after the “photoshop”, and it is amazing how you did that, or how technology is so advanced so as to make the image look so perfect.

However,

I feel that an image should reflect a certain degree of reality and honesty. I also feel that it can become to easy to delete or remove objects or people altogether from a photo. The spontaneous intelligence of the photographer risks to be alienated. By that I mean that every time you see an interesting shot, but with something that you dont really like, you will still go ahead and shoot rather than wait for another occasion. Wouldn’t that have a negative impact on the creativity and “work” involved when taking photos ? I feel it is worth it to be patient, and to to “let” go the couple. For me, it is often when I “finish” my shooting and when I am heading home, when I let go of the idea of trying to capture the perfect photograph that the best opportunities arise.”

In response, let me begin by saying that, in  Flickr, I show my photographs to anyone who is interested in looking at them; and in  my blog, I discuss what I have done and what I was trying to achieve; and in both instances, I invite comments, opinions and criticism and use them to either influence or reinforce my direction going forward. So I write as a learner submitting a thesis, not as a teacher preparing a lecture. In writing, the only person I am trying to convince is myself; for it seems to me that, for anyone who aspires to call him or herself an artist, the most important thing to have is a clear point of view. Whether any of us convinces another to change is not as important to me as having the debate because at the end of the day, I will either allow your arguments to influence my thinking or I will become more confident in my existing position for its having withstood your arguments.

Please recognise that it is a measure of the esteem in which I hold “Elox” that I have given his comments such deep consideration and answered them here in such detail. Here, then, are my observations:

“Elox”: I feel that an image should reflect a certain degree of reality and honesty.

Let me address the question of “honesty” first.

One aspect of “honesty” that “Elox” may have in mind is that concerning the integrity of the capture. There has been some discussion in the media lately about how magazines “retouch” images to make models look even more attractive; and how this is giving an unrealistic definition of “beauty” to the readers of the magazines. Transporting this issue into the domain of street photography, does “retouching” destroy the credibility of the image? Is the credo of street photography manifested in its realness, its authenticity, its insistence that “if it’s there, it must be shown”?  “Elox” has raised an excellent point here and I’m not sure that I have an answer to it at this moment. I have sensibilities that find the retention of distracting and irrelevant elements in a photograph offensive to me. If the credo of street photography is so unbending as to prohibit their removal, “Elox” suggests that I should not take the photograph; that I should move on or wait until a better opportunity presents itself to me. Alternatively, of course, I could go ahead regardless, capture the image, remove the offensive elements in post-production and accept the fact that I am not an authentic street photographer.  Do I really want to be constrained by other people’s definitions? In the end, only I can make that choice.

My personal honesty as a photographer resides in the fact that I have stated openly and up front that I use Photoshop, occasionally, to refine images, but only where the fundamental integrity of the image is not compromised. I do this; I acknowledge that I do this; and I see it simply as another step in the image-making process. I do not do this to distort truth; only to enhance the aesthetic appearance of the reality. What I do is no different to removing an offensive article from the field of view before taking the picture. If others are offended by my “tampering”, that is a pity. But if I had not published my position on the use of Photoshop to “tidy up” images, they would be blissfully unaware, and deluded; and I think that would be more dishonest of me.

The question of “reality” in photography, however, is a much more complex and interesting one.

For as long as I can remember, there has been a popular myth that “the camera doesn’t lie”; and this myth continues to influence our criteria for judging the integrity of photographic images.  But in fact, the camera is nothing more than a device used to record an image of an area of space at a moment in time as determined by the operator of the camera. It doesn’t record all of space and it doesn’t record all of time so the reality it captures is only ever partial – an abstract. Can that particular space at that particular time be called “reality” without the context in which it existed? This is an interesting philosophical question. What is reality?  It is my contention that the camera doesn’t ever record “reality”; it only ever records a perception of reality; and in the absence of actual context, the viewer inevitably supplies his or her own imagined context. When I upload an image to Flickr, only I know the true context from which that image was abstracted. It fascinates me to read how other people interpret the “reality” of the image when they view it out of context. A good example of this is the image entitled “Moving on” that I uploaded this week. Several of those who commented suggested that the figure in the image looked like a gangster. In fact, until I read those comments, that had not occurred to me.  And I was there! This seems to substantiate my argument that the image, whether it is Photoshopped or printed straight from the file captured by the camera, is open to interpretation and therefore can never be a true and definitive reflection of reality. This is why my blog site is called Verisimillitude.

In the blog piece I wrote prior to this one, The Joy of Street, I discussed the difference between one’s actual eyes and the mind’s eye. When I am shooting reportage, I use my actual eyes as the benchmark for what my camera must capture. My photograph of the Lincoln Memorial, for example, is unadulterated by any image manipulation software although I did have to resort to Photoshop to “clean up” some spots created by deterioration of the negative. I regard this as “restoring” reality, not distorting it.

The Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial

When I am creating an artistic piece of work, however, I seek to recreate what I see with my mind’s eye. For example, the image of the girl with the ponytail in The Joy of Street was the image I wanted to create when I saw her that day. It was taken with a camera. No one was added or removed using Photoshop. True, it wasn’t a factual likeness, as seen by my actual eyes; but it was as close as my equipment and my skill enabled me to create a factual likeness of what I saw in my mind’s eye at that time.

The shadow of your smile

The shadow of your smile

We, as photographers, use our equipment and our skills and imaginations to create the illusion of reality; and we use all sorts of tricks to achieve that outcome.

Is Black and White a reality? Of course it is not. When did anyone wake up one day and only see the world in black, white and shades of grey? With contemporary digital technology, I shoot everything in colour and make a decision whether or not to convert to black and white. Sometimes this decision is taken before the shot is captured; sometimes afterwards. Does that really matter? Not in my opinion. What is more important to me is the question of relevance; the relevance of the artistic device to the subject matter.

And does the eye really see motion blur; or is that simply an accepted convention used by the creators of still images to suggest motion?

Depth of Field is a commonly used technique to create the illusion of distance yet people with 20/20 vision see everything in focus, no matter how near or far it is.

Many photographers on Flickr, including myself, produce images in high-key, low-key or high contrast. Does the world really look like that? No. But for me, these photographers are merely exercising artistic license in order to create a desired impact on the viewer. I am totally cool with that.

Then there’s the question of soft focus, including bokeh. Okay, if I am not wearing my glasses, things do appear out of focus; but that is a fact of my flawed eyesight, not of the reality around me. Other people, blessed with 20/20 vision, do not see the world out of focus; yet photographers frequently use that device in their images. In the photograph in my Flickr Photostream entitled “Alone with my thoughts, walking”, I depicted a man and his shadow quite severely out of focus, an effect created deliberately in my camera at the time of capture. Was that how they appeared to me in reality? No, of course it wasn’t.  Then why did I distort reality like that? In the blog piece I wrote to accompany that series of images, (Shackles of the Mind) I explained the effect I was trying to create: a man so deep in his thoughts that he was oblivious to his surroundings. At the time of writing this, that photograph has been viewed 102 times, has received 40 comments and has been favourited by 19 people. Not one of them howled in anguish that I had misrepresented reality.

Alone with my thoughts, walking

Alone with my thoughts, walking

I could go on and on listing ways in which the camera itself is used to distort reality. That is without even thinking about what can be done in Photoshop. But if I haven’t made my point by now, I never will.

In his comment “Elox” said that an image should “reflect a certain degree of reality “; and I think that the real question in this debate is “where to draw the line” between reality and what I might call “assisted” reality.  If I had taken the photo of the man and his shadow in focus then blurred the image in Photoshop, would that be any less acceptable than producing the same image in the camera? To be honest, I would say, “yes”; and for precisely the reason that “Elox” gives in his next point..

“Elox”: I also feel that it can become too easy to delete or remove objects or people altogether from a photo. The spontaneous intelligence of the photographer risks to be alienated. By that I mean that every time you see an interesting shot, but with something that you dont really like, you will still go ahead and shoot rather than wait for another occasion. Wouldn’t that have a negative impact on the creativity and “work” involved when taking photos?

In my original Photography blog piece I wrote:

“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 guess the point I was trying to make in my Photography piece was that, if I can get the shot I want but there is some trivial detail that would be better removed, I have no compunction about removing it. The emphasis is on the word “trivial” (i.e. not important to the overall truth of the image). It really is a question of where to draw the line and I agree (as I said above) that there is a risk that photographer might grow lazy and use post-production to fix up sloppy camera work. But taking the question of sloppiness out of the equation for a moment, having captured an image, I believe that it is a matter for the individual photographer to decide whether the “warts and all” fidelity of that image is more important than achieving aesthetic “perfection”.

In the end, I think it is important in this discussion to differentiate between the photographer who uses Photoshop to cover up his laziness; and the photographer to is prepared to use any means at his disposal to achieve the most faithful reproduction of his artistic vision. And to set the record straight, I do not support the use of Photoshop in the case of the former; which means that, at least on this issue, I think “Elox” and I are in agreement.

Some people, however, will still call my “tidying up” of unnecessary distractions a form of “fabrication”; and this goes straight to the heart of the key question: what is photography?

Purists will argue that a photograph is what comes out of the camera – no more, no less. Cropping is prohibited. Subsequent adjustments to colour and brightness are prohibited. Adjustments to contrast and saturation are prohibited. The question of where to draw the line is resolved because there is no line. What you see is what you get. All the key decisions are made before or at the instant of capture; and what happens after that is simply reproduction.

I respect the right of individual photographers to impose this discipline on themselves. They are backing their skills in composition, framing and use of the camera controls to produce the image that they want. Am I lazy for allowing myself to use post-production techniques to achieve the results I want; or am I simply using a supplementary set of skills that I have acquired? To tell the truth, I don’t know. And I’m not sure that it matters all that much. For me, the artistic process only ends when the image has been completed; whenever that occurs.

For my part, I have sometimes taken shots that I’ve looked at afterwards and thought, “That would be so much better if…”  In these cases, I allow myself to go on creating beyond the captured image provided that the post-production enhancement is relevant to the original aesthetic because I don’t subscribe to that dogma mandating that the creative process must end at the moment of capture.

One thing that in my opinion differentiates an average image from an exceptional one is the degree to which the elements of the image (i.e. the artistic devices used by the photographer, in the camera or in post-production) contribute to the overall aesthetic of the work. For example, blur for its own sake is just blur; whereas blur that supports the narrative of the image becomes an integral component of the work. What I don’t like to see is where a photographer tries to “jazz up” an image by randomly using the effects available in Photoshop with no other purpose than to disguise the inferior quality of the original. The ideal image, for me, is one that is coherent; in which every element is relevant to the story and there are no elements present that are irrelevant. If that can be achieved directly in the camera, it’s all good and well. If not…that’s the question.

If I accept the accusation that I occasionally fabricate images, then I feel obliged to question other forms of fabrication that are commonly practiced and generally accepted.

One form of fabrication that I don’t practice is what otherwise might be called “staging”. I don’t ask people to pose for me and pass that off as candid photography. I make images out of what I see around me. In the image I entitled “The house at the end of the Universe” I thought, at the time, that the shot might be improved if it had a person leaning against the lamppost. Someone did pass by while I was shooting but I didn’t ask him to pose for me. Alternatively, I could have taken a separate photograph of someone leaning against a wall and used  Photoshop to extract the figure and paste it into the “house” image. But I didn’t do that either. In the end, I accepted what was there and whilst the image was not so popularly received on Flickr, it is one of my personal favourites, just the way it is.  You will also notice, and I think this is a very important point, that I didn’t Photoshop out the little green mark in the foreground. This happens to be the reflection of the streetlight in the lens of the camera. It was NOT part of the reality. Yet people say that the camera doesn’t lie. Why did I leave it there? Because it made me think of kryptonite and that’s what gave me the idea for the title. No kidding!

The house at the end of the Universe

The house at the end of the Universe

When I “tidy up” images, it might be termed “fabrication by subtraction”. That is really the only kind of fabrication I am comfortable with in my own work. Out of the many thousands of images I have created over the years I can only think of three cases, none of which have been uploaded to Flickr (yet), where I have fabricated by addition, or in other words “constructed” shots; and in all three cases, the fabrication was in the manner of multiple exposures in the darkroom. “Music is the healing force of the Universe” was an image inspired by music written by the late jazz saxophonist, Albert Ayler. I found the idea not only beautiful but also true in my own experience (but that’s another story); and I wanted to create something visual to carry with me as a memory of that idea. The image I created comprised four separate photographs: an SP of myself playing a saxophone, a shot of some clouds, an image of Audie Murphy captured in my camera from a magazine article and a shot of “the Universe” which was actually a sheet of black paper with pin holes in it and a light shining behind it. The final image was created in my home darkroom; and believe me, aligning four separate images in the dark takes as much skill as the purists require to take their final images in their cameras. The image I have uploaded here is a scan of that print made around 40 years ago.

AUS_BP_0006

My point is that image making requires all kinds of skills, in setting up shots, lighting them, executing them and in the darkroom, developing and printing them. Photoshop, for me, is my digital darkroom. It is just as much a part of the processes as my analogue darkroom was all those years ago, where I used to “push” development to increase the contrast; and “dodge” and “burn” prints to compensate for the deficiencies in the reproductive capabilities of the cameras I used. Yet, although I never “stage” shots and rarely “construct” shots, I respect the right of others to create in that way if that is the way their path leads them.

“Elox” argues that the ease with which one can “subtract” elements from an image using Photoshop creates a risk that the photographer’s “spontaneous intelligence” will be debilitated by the reassurance that Photoshop will absolve him of his sins.(i.e. that he can accomplish much more easily in Photoshop what he really should have been disciplining himself to achieve in the camera at the point of capture). In other words, Photoshop becomes a crutch for the weak, the undisciplined or the untalented.

I don’t doubt that this is true in some cases. I hope it is not true in my case. I trust that I use Photoshop as a creative adjunct rather than a safety net. But the risk of alienating my spontaneous intelligence is one that troubles me far less than the risk I take each time I publish a blog piece exposing my thinking about photography.  There, I fear alienating the people with whom I have become friends on Flickr. I fear alienating them because I might over-intellectualise photography; because I sometimes raise questions that they might not want to think about; because I admit to things that may diminish me in their opinion; and I fear these outcomes because their opinions are very important to me. But it is a risk I feel I have to take because I want people to judge me as I really am and not as a caricature they have created of me based on a paucity of information. My most recent upload, for example (“Every time we say goodbye”), has not been so popular with my regular contacts. Perhaps they read my Joy of Street piece and although there was no manipulation performed on this particular image (besides conversion to B&W and some minor cropping), my credibility as a street photographer might have been damaged. Or, perhaps there are other reasons they haven’t commented: they’ve been too busy or, the image just didn’t appeal to them. I don’t know. Losing friends is painful; but sometimes we have to endure pain in order to become stronger.

“Elox”: I feel it is worth it to be patient, and to “let” go the couple.

I cannot count the number of times I have had to let a shot “go” over the years.  Sometimes you find a shot that only needs the right light, or the right person to come along to complete the story, so you wait; and wait; and wait. Sometimes you end up making do with less than you had hoped for; but its still good enough; and sometimes you just have to turn and walk away because its not going to happen this time. Of course, I have no evidence to prove this has happened to me because, by definition, I don’t have a photograph to show for it. But I’d be surprised if there was a street photographer anywhere in the world who hasn’t had this experience.

“Elox”: For me, it is often when I “finish” my shooting and when I am heading home, when I let go of the idea of trying to capture the perfect photograph that the best opportunities arise.

And I can totally relate to this.  If you go to my Flickr Photostream and look at “A time to reflect”, “Smokin’”, “Contemplation” (the woman) and “Friends are…”; they were all taken while I was waiting for the bus to take me home. And “10 chairs” was taken as I was walking home from my local bus stop. In my Joy of Street piece, I spoke about the importance of preparation and “getting into the mood”. These are my strategies for avoiding the pressure of “trying to capture the perfect photograph”. By letting go of my self-consciousness and submitting to the rhythms of the street, the question of what “I” want becomes subordinate to what “exists”. I often feel that I do not go out seeking photographs; but rather that they find me and demand that I take them.

The question of whether it is acceptable to refine images once they have left the camera is a very interesting one and I know that there is a variety of opinion held on the subject; and held very passionately by some. But I also feel that photography would become very boring if every photographer followed the same rules. I believe that we must each find and follow our own way; but the process of finding that way is greatly assisted by embracing or at least listening to and considering alternative points of view, even when those views appear in conflict with our own. So I am sincerely grateful to “Elox” for putting this issue in a different perspective, thereby requiring me to dig deeper into my own thoughts on the subject. And I trust that both his views and mine will give you sufficient motivation to reflect and form your own point of view.

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3 thoughts on “Response to “Elox”

  1. the photographer is always in the picture, difficul to establish where starts his/her authority ? Enjoy reading your comments a lot.

  2. Keith,
    You have written a whole lot more in your blog than I have had time to read, so by commenting here I am a bit aprehensive of jumping into the middle of something that has been “fleshed out” elsewhere, but I feel compelled to respond to the use of post-processing.

    Post-processing can range through a minor adjustment of exposure to a major overhaul, where the photographer applies an “un-suck” filter to a crappy image in order to make something out of nothing.

    Sometimes I will take a photograph, and I will do nothing to it. That circumstance is infrequent. I sometimes only make minor adjustments, but more frequently I will do my best to create an image that I find pleasing. I do not adhere to using the un-suck filter, but I have on occasion made significant adjestments in post-processing.

    My first premise for the use of post-processing is the camera. Since when has either film or the digital sensor been able to create a photograph that was exactly as was seen by the viewer. Cameras and lenses most always create some aberation or distortion. Has someone created a perfect camera that can capture reality with 100% precision? I am not aware of it. In fact, different lenses on the same camera at the same aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focal length wil often come up with different results.

    My second premise is that I am not a photojornalist, therefore I do not feel obligated to adhere to the standards of “do not remove undesirable artifacts from a photo”. I belonged to the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) for a year, and they would send me their monthly magazine, and I was able to use their website to get questions answered.

    And the NPPA are very strict about removing items from a photograph that might be distracting. Yet, I never read any statement from the NPPA that a photo could not be manipulated for exposure or contrast, etc.

    So, I do not feel like a lesser photographer because I do post-processing on my photos. No one is paying me to report the news.

    • Rick,

      Thank you first of all for reading my blog and most of all for commenting on it. It sounds to me like we are of similar minds with regards to post-processing, which is always reassuring to hear.

      There is one grey area for me and I’m not sure whether I personally am justified in doing this or am simply trying to “justify” something that I really shouldn’t be doing. Often, when I am out and about with my camera, I see something that takes my eye and I shoot it…simply because it has taken my eye. And as you said, the camera itself cannot always reproduce the “vision” you have when you “envision” a photograph, so I have no compunction in using whatever means I have at my disposal to achieve the result that I had originally “envisioned”. More often than not, the reality has provoked a chain of thought in my mind that has lead to the “vision” of the photograph.

      But there are other instances, where it is not reality itself that inspires me so much as a photograph I have taken. Sometimes, it is not until I look at the initial image, captured by the camera, that the chain of thought begins, or changes direction from the original idea, and I use Photoshop to complete the process. In one way of looking at this, the process is the same; only the starting point is different: in one case, starting with reality and in the other, starting with an image. But a more cynical interpretation of the second case might be that I am (perhaps unconsciously) looking for a way to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear…applying what you call the “un-suck” filter.

      I’ve often wondered about this, because I agree with you in principle that this is a poor practice in photography (i.e. using software to “un-suck” a photograph). But although I say it myself, occasionally the results a really quite good and then I feel that it is perfectly legitimate to be re-inspired by an image. I should add that this happens rarely. And in the vast majority of cases, I simply throw away the shots that “suck” and don’t try to salvage them or make something out of them. Furthermore, I have stumbled across a few artists whose work is based on using other people’s photographs (with their permission granted, of course) and reworking them to make a new version of the “art”. So, I’d be interested in your opinion. Is it okay to re-invent an image based on a secondary inspiration; or am I just kidding myself?

      Best regards, Keith

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