Copyright @ All Rights Reserved
Photography; Time for a Vital Distinction
Earlier this year Nikon produced an advert describing ‘Pure Photography’. There were smiles all around. It was a step forward, said many, a step towards honesty. Even committed digital users, it seemed, were tiring of the Photoshop revolution that'd encouraged style over truth. Social media hummed with comments praising Photoshop’s contribution to the advancement of image making but questioning whether the cost had been worth it. The cost being that in 2013, the inherent honesty of Photography had been undermined, nearly to a point of no return...
The literary world has had its Vital Distinction for years. If a piece of writing is fact, it’s non-fiction. If it’s a figment of the writer’s imagination, then it’s fiction. True, some literature straddles the two definitions, but not much of it. The line between the two is very strong; if work isn’t 100% true then the attitude is ‘throw it in the fiction pile’. It’s not that people look at one genre as superior to the other, that’s not the point of the distinction. The point is just to let publishers, book sellers and the general public know if what they are looking at is true or not. We humans like truth, you see. It helps us out, helps us make informed decisions.
If we read a non-fiction account of Rome, for instance, that makes us want to go there with its talk of fabulous gelato and evocative ruins, we’d be expecting to find such things when we arrived. But if all we found were rock hard ice cream and glistening skyscrapers as far as the eye could see, we’d be fuming, right? We’d have spent all this money, emotion and time in order to get what we wanted, and now, look, it’s nothing like in the book! We’d feel cheated.
‘You said it would be good ice cream, and you marketed your words as truth, but you should have said you’d made it up, you should have called it fiction, I would’ve just enjoyed reading and not bothered to come here if that was the case…’
A friend recently sent me an article titled 'Surreal Places to Visit Before You Die' (as opposed to After You Die? Yes, there's lots of work to do in the travel journalist field as well, but I'll save that for another article...) In this article there are many images of brightly coloured landscapes. You can see it here - http://www.buzzfeed.com/ariellecalderon/surreal-places-to-visit-before-you-die
My friend said, 'I really want to go to these places!' And I said to her, ‘Did you want to visit these places after Photoshop got to them, or as they actually are? You know that in most cases these colours aren’t really there in real life, don’t you?’
She hadn’t stopped to think about it much. She’s a photographer and knows how much dishonesty there is in the artform nowadays but still she, like others, believes a photograph when she sees it, even though believing photography right here, right now, often only leads you to dissapointment.
I think this belief is nice however, and I want my friend to stay that way, putting her trust in images they see online and in printed format. But in order to make belief a sustainable emotion, as far as photogrpahy is concerned, we need to admit to the difference between fictional and non–fictional photographic images, we need to make a distinction…
The truth is important. It helps us make decisions, helps us to understand who we want to invest our time, our emotions, our money and perhaps even our future in.
We also use the truth to help us categorize. This book, or image, is truthful. This other image, or book, is a figment of the artists’ imagination. Either one is fine, just as long as we know what we’re dealing with. Sure, there’s always the smart guy who says ‘Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’ or 'Sometimes fiction can illustrate real life more than truth can' but they’re in the minority. For most of us the truth is the truth and a work of imagination is just that and both are processed, enjoyed and used by us in different ways.
In the photography world a distinction wasn’t needed in the distant past. The whole artform is based upon the sentence ‘The Camera Never Lies’; honesty lies at its core. When Henry Fox Talbot stood at the Villa Melzi in the early 1830’s he wasn’t reported as thinking ‘How can I invent a process here that falsely portrays that which is before me?’ No, he was purely interested in taking the scene and transplanting it onto paper without having to paint it. Photography, at the point of invention, was all about honest, factual representation.
And that is what photography has always been ever since, and still is. If it becomes something else, then it should be called something else, no?
Consider this; if you have a glass of water and then you add some fruit juice, you don’t still call it a glass of water. It’s now something else entirely. You call it what you want - fruit juice, a juice drink, whatever - but you don’t call it water any more. I think we can all agree that if you did, it’d be a ridiculous and misleading desription, and you’d be a liar.
Similarly, if you have a piece of non-fiction writing and then you insert some fantasy into it, you no longer have non-fiction, but fiction. Every single individual I’ve ever met would accept and understand this.
The same then has to be true then for the art of Photography. And I believe that it’s time for us all to accept it.
Put simply, if you use a camera to create an image that does not bear an honest resemblance to the subject matter, then it is no longer a photograph. Call it what you like, and I will, later, but for a photograph to be a photograph, it has to present an honest representation of its subject matter, simple as that.
If a photographer in the past deviated from this and became an artist, they usually had the decency to announce it in some way. It’s true that over the years many have manipulated images, and some have even claimed their manipulations to be true representations of the scene portrayed, but most of the names we’ve come to know and admire weren’t up to those games (and even if they were, so what? Just because they may have acted dishonestly it doesn't give us the green light to do the same, surely...). Masters such as Ansel Adams and Bill Brandt never tried to hide the fact that their finished prints often bore little resemblance to the original negatives. They were artists at times and they weren’t afraid to say so. They also made images that did very much resemble the subject matter, and at that point they were photographers. You knew where you were with them. Bill’s photo of miners washing at home, that was honest. You could have stumbled upon that scene yourself if you’d wanted to knock any door in the north of England at that time. But ‘Halifax’, the famous scene of trainlines and chimneys, no, he himself admitted that you’d never see that scene in real life, it was so heavily worked up in the darkroom, it was art, an image to entertain or educate, perhaps even an honest representation of what he’d felt that day, but…not what he’d seen.
Wasn’t that decent of him, to say that? To say to his viewers, this is not real. Don’t try to find this scene, you won’t. Don’t try to take a straight photo like this, you won’t be able to, the contrast is unnatural. This is fiction, it looks nice, superb even, and the heavy contrast may add to the social commentary, that’s its value, take it as such.
Other well known photographers, such as Robert Capa, weren’t adverse to fakery either. His photo of the Spanish soldier at the moment of his death (or was it taken by his girlfriend, Gerda Taro?) made him famous, yet there are serious doubts as to the authenticity of the shot. Why should that matter? Because if it’s real, then it’s an image of the horror of war. If it’s a set up, then it’s just a photo of a guy acting for the camera and, some have said, getting shot by a sniper as a result. Whatever message it may have delivered when it was posing as a factual representation of what happened is lost when it’s revealed that the soldier couldn’t have possibly been running down the hill when he was shot, as Capa had said. He was flat footed before he fell and so, some say, if the story behind the photo is not what they were led to believe, they’re entitled to resist its truths and perhaps discount the medium and indeed the photographer themselves.
Of course, it’s not just the photographer who needs to re-educate themselves but the picture editors, the caption writers and those at the healm of whatever process uses the images, as well.
I agree that a little bit of darkroom, or Photoshop, work is acceptable for any photograph claiming to be honest, but do too much of that and you cross over into Fine Art and by doing so let go of any claim to honest representation. The darkroom, for the photographer, is a place to produce a print that resembles closely that which was seen with their eyes and which, though the faults of the materials, or lack of skill, they had failed to achieve with the original negative.
Use it for other things too, if you like, but then, if you believe there is value in truth, don’t call the resulting print a photograph.
Photoshop has even more potential that the traditional darkroom to be used for something less than honest. I know of at least two world famous wildlife photographers who, in the 1990's, had spent far more time in front of the computer than they did on location. They were known for their stunning, other-worldly images of elephants in forests and lions at waterholes. I remember seeing their work and believing that the images were real representations of something that I might see if I travelled widely. So I did, travel widely that is. Over the course of a year I sat by waterholes in 15 African games parks and spent a whole lot of cash in the process, trying to see what they saw, trying to match their images with my own camera. But no go. I was useless, I decided. I had no talent. I’d been taking photos since I was 3 years old, I knew my way around a camera or so I thought, but look at my results! Not a patch on the pro guys work. I may as well give up my photography. And I did, for a while.
Until I learnt that there had been very real, but unpublisized, differences between the processes behind our respective photographs. I had travelled to the waterholes and sat there, for hours, waiting for sunset, or sunrise. I’d walked through game parks, approached animals on foot, I had faced the real world and held my camera up to it. My photos were a record of this procedure.
The professionals, on the other hand, if my sources are to be believed, hadn’t bothered to wait around for the perfect shot. They’d shot their lions drinking one day, their sunset the next, the slanted light the next, and the antelopes and giraffe a week later. They’d then gone back home and combined the images on Photoshop. They’d faced the real world but they hadn’t been concerned with capturing what it offered. Instead, they’d wanted to be like Bill Brandt in his artist phase and try to use the world to offer up an art product. Their photos are a record of this procedure.
All ok so far. There’s room for all sorts in this world. A fantasy image of elephants in a shady forest lit by angled shafts of white light is a pleasure to look at and ponder over, as much so as that same scene with a more natural, lifelike lighting. Both have their merits.
The problem comes when the artists neglected to say that their photographs weren’t images of a real scene and in doing this, pretended that the scenes that they’d presented could in fact be witnessed by anybody with the money to travel to such places. This was a lie.
So no big deal, right, it’s just wildlife shots. Who cares? I did, because I had self doubt thrust upon me because I believed that these photographs were ones I should aspire to achieve even though, unknown to me, they were completely unachievable. But that’s just me, it didn’t effect anybody else. I got over it, no harm done…
Ok, change the scenario. It’s not a waterhole in Africa but a fashion mag and the photographer re-touches their work to make the model look like they have perfect skin, or an unnaturally thin, toned body. A person close to you is at an impressionable stage of life and wants to be like the model so they become anorexic or get terribly depressed because their skin, hair or eye colour isn’t as good as the models and never will be. As a result of this depression they begin to accept less, in their choice of partners, job, food, everything. Is it still ok that there's no disinction between images showing reality and those showing fantasy?
Or you see a photograph of a hotel in a holiday brochure. It looks great. Azure sea in the background, palm trees swaying and growing out of golden sand. You get there to find out the sea isn’t really that blue, the sand is a bit brown really and as for the palm trees, they were never there, they’d been Photoshopped in.
And then you reach your hotel room. It wasn’t this dingy in the photograph, was it? No, of course not, the photographer used 2 off-camera flashes in the room and combined 3 photographs with HDR technology to present an image of a room that can never, ever exist in the real world. Yet, you just spent your hard earned money getting here because you bought into the place you saw in the photograph, and now you’re not happy…
So now, what if I told you that it’s possible, by reading a single word, that you could tell if a photographic image was a true representation of a subject, or if instead it was a work of art, designed for your enjoyment, but not for you to take as truth. Would that make for a better world?
Younger, impressionable people could look at fashion magazines and enjoy them without bothering to aspire to be like the models, because the wording would clearly state that these human beings, as they're portrayed, do not exist, they are just there for illustration and titillation purposes only.
You could look at travel, general interest or even photographic magazines and know, at a glance, if a photograph were to be just savoured as an art piece or if it were to be taken seriously as a representation that had a right to entice you to try to visit, or emulate.
And you could work, as a photographer, safe in the knowledge that you would get the recognition your hard work deserves. You’d walk across a hill for hours and wait at the perfect position to catch sunset, knowing that when people saw your work they wouldn’t try to class it in the same category as a composite image created from the safety of a computer seat.
If it sounds like I tend to favour the old fashioned, honest form of photography, its because I do. But that’s not what this is about. Use whatever medium of expression you want, analogue or digital, create whatever style of image you want, that’s what I say, everything is as valid as everything else. But…
There’s enough dishonesty in this world, most of it driven by business people, it’s time to make a stand. Photography has always been known and cherished by most of us to be an honest art form. So regardless of if we create Photoshop fuelled fantasy images or completely factual analogue portraits, lets bring the practice back to it’s original, and most powerful, state, and present our images honestly.
And here’s how to do it.
If you’re manipulating your image in some way – either before taking the image with your choice of film, or camera, or white balance setting, etc, or during taking with angled lighting (like, for instance, when you're shooting fashion and you position lights overhead to over-emphasis muscle tone) or after taking with use of Photoshop or other darkroom technique - so that it becomes something that does not closely resemble the original subject matter then have the courage to call it a Phomation. That’s short for Photo Manipulation. No need to make a big deal of it. Instead of saying ‘Photograph by J Smith’, you say ‘Phomation by J Smith’. Simple.
Many would disagree that there is a need for this. I’d say, if there’s no need, no harm done, right? Just do it, and who knows, maybe with that small change of wording, you'll change society.
That’s not an exaggeration. If you can render an entire means of communication honest with the use of a single word, why shouldn't wider social change be possible? Forget about Nikon’s ‘Pure Photography’ drive. Pure has nothing to do with anything, it’s just marketing. What’s important is the act of bringing honesty back into your life, and into that of others if you can, and you can do that just as well with a 2013 digital wonder-camera as you can with a 1930’s Kodak. It’s not the tools or the process that we're talking about here, it’s the intention.
By buying into the Phomation movement, you also have the potential to change history.
The people you thought were the greatest photographers in their field, you may just have to re-evaluate that. Do you mean the photographer who insisted on making an honest image, or the one who was content to manipulate it to make the subject matter seem better, or different, than it was in real life?
Of course, the concept of Phomation can only stand if photographers - and the business people who use their work - are brave and moral enough to be honest, and some would sneer at that being a possibility. But why should we who love Photography suppose and accept that this cynical point of view is the case? Why should we not believe that humans would choose to be honest, given the chance?
We don’t tolerate fiction in the non-fiction part of the bookshop. We don’t allow drug-fuelled athletes to run in the same events with ‘clean’ (pure?) athletes. In fact we don’t tolerate public dishonesty in anything, really, apart from Photography…
I believe it’s time for idealism, and for honesty. You’re welcome to take this idea where you want, but for now, I’d ask you to make the simple distinction in all of your work. If you create a photograph that closely resembles the subject matter it portrays, then call it a Photograph. If you make an image that you’ve conspired to alter so that it does not portray the subject matter as you saw it in real life, call it a Phomation. Create both types of image in one day if you like, there's nothing to say you can't do both, with whatever means are at your disposal. Just be honest at the point of display, that's all.
And if you know any editors, or people with influence in the photographic field, mention the Phomation movement to them, ask them to spread the word. Let's see what happens. At the very least we'll add another word to the dictionary. But I think we'll do more than that, don't you?
Phomation of The Colliseum, Rome - Box Brownie onto Photographic Paper
Alteration completed before exposure by putting my fingers all over the photographic paper and then
afterwards by leaving it in the dev too long so that it spoiled.
Photograph of the scene that inspired Henry Fox Talbot to invent his brand of photography - Pinhole Camera onto Photographic Paper
It's got a 12 second exposure and I used an old process, yet it's what you might see if you were to visit.
Photograph from Mt Sinai at Sunrise - 35mm SLR onto Analogue Film
Difficult one to categorize. It was meant as a simple landscape shot but the image came back from the printers like this. The beam of light was shown on the negative, so it's not a printing issue. It's not what I saw with my own eyes but in the split second that my shutter closed it existed in the real world. So it's a photograph.