What Exactly Is a Photograph?

There has been a debate lately on “what constitutes a photograph” and “faking it”, meaning how much manipulation can you do to a picture before it transitions from a photo to something like a painting. We’re in a period where Photoshop and other programs can take a photo and pretty much do anything you want with it. You can start with a blank slate and build a picture from scratch (as any matte painting artist working in the film industry will tell you), or you can take an existing picture and massage it into something completely different.

I recently watched a Conan O’brien video where he had a long, one-on-one conversation with the musician Jack White. During the interview, Mr. White was commenting about how musicians today can use software such as Pro-Tools and massage a song into something that you can’t really get live. Such as if you can’t sing in tune, there’s always a way to bring your voice into tune via software. He then commented that photographers can do anything with Photoshop instead of how they did it before computers. He implied that it was better “back then” than it is today because photography was, for some reason, more pure before Photoshop.

He said “If you’re going to call yourself a photographer now….you have a big monster hanging out in front of you (Photoshop) that can make you cheat on everything. If I show you a photograph and it’s beautiful, 3 or 4 years ago it was “who took that photo, how did it happen, how did he capture that moment”. And now: “it’s probably fake; it’s probably altered to look that good.”

I’m not sure how versed Jack White is in the photography industry, but he brings up an interesting thing. He seems to be like most people today who know about programs like Photoshop. The know that people can do the things to pictures and movies digitally to where you can make anything you want. I’m sure that the first paragraph in this post was something that many people already knew. They’ve heard of Photoshop and “airbrushing” and other techniques, even if they’ve never actually seen it. But having said that, I’m not sure how much they know that photography has ALWAYS been about manipulation of the image. Whether it was in the darkroom or in Lightroom, people have been futzing around with photos since it’s inception. You’d be amazed at the amount of work Ansel Adams had to go through to get a decent negative and print. It became such a complex issue that he wrote a series of books about it, which became the cornerstone of film photography. If he would have just “captured the moment” in camera, then just print it as is, they would have looked terrible. Especially one of his most iconic photos, Moonrise Hernandez, for example.

Okay, the pubic knows about Photoshop. Some may even assume that most everything is “fake” today. But what’s frustrating is that, to me, it doesn’t really matter. So what? If I do an extensive retouching or manipulation for a client’s portrait, I’m doing so to make the portrait look better. My job is to make pretty pictures. That’s what I endeavor to do. Yes, there’s a line that every photographer and retoucher have to draw for themselves as to what they’ll do and won’t. You literally can do anything in a picture now. What sets one photographer or retoucher apart today is restraint. Lack of restraint is what is giving the industry a bad name. Go to any grocery store and look at the magazines while in the check-out isle. The covers of those magazines have been manipulated so much, the poor people on the covers have plastic skin. That’s going to far. If you can tell something has been retouched, it’s too far.

When I do a retouch and people look at it and can’t tell what I’ve done, yet the image looks good, then I’ve done my job correctly. It’s still a picture. It’s still an image that people can look at and hopefully enjoy. Does it matter, in the end, how it was made?


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