What is a photograph and better yet what is a photographer? These terms have become very hard to define lately. For the last 200 years or so photography has been a beautiful and unique medium defined by its ability to portray a reality as seen through the photographers eyes. To be a photographer meant that you used a camera to capture a subject and then made a print, end of story. It was honest and simple but tragically those days are over. In the last few decades the advent and easy access to digital manipulating software has bred a new generation of image makers who rely heavily or fully on software to produce their artwork. This has resulted in the creation of a new artistic medium, digital-art, which for some reason has been recklessly grouped in with photography. Photography has now become a free for all genre of art with no real standard. The term photography is used like an umbrella to classify a wide range of imagery, whether truly photographic or not. This has watered down genuine photography and invoked a state of visual numbness towards photographic imagery. The true essence of the photograph has been lost and the definition of photography has become foggy.
You want to buy a truck so you go to your local car lot. When you arrive you tell the salesman you are looking for a truck. The dealer says he has just the thing then leads you around the corner and shows you a station wagon. There is nothing wrong with the station wagon but you wanted a truck. Confused you say I’m really just looking for a truck. He laughs and replies this vehicle was manufactured in a facility that also produces trucks, close enough, its a truck. I seriously doubt anyone would accept that, buy the station wagon and ride around in it thinking they are in a truck. Though this example of a willful ignorance towards reality is just what has happened to the definition of what photography is and is not. Welcome to the big lie.
We are now in a deceitful era where any and everything is labeled as “photography”. Nowadays just about any image can be called a photograph with little regard for the process behind it. How a photo was created no longer seems to matter and whether it was actually achieved photographically or not is of no concern. Images that were created almost solely on a computer now qualify as photographic work. The title of photographer is also generously handed out to anyone who so much as looks at a camera in their creative process. This is the face of photography today. It has become a loose genre made up of digital-art, photo-illustration, mixed media and photography. Photographs and non-photographs alike are now thoughtlessly paraded under the same banner. The strangest thing is that most everybody is aware of this yet continues on with lie. Its like a having an elephant in the room that isn’t ignored but praised and awarded.
“Wow, its just amazing what you can do in photoshop!” This was a comment made by woman at a gallery viewing a photo of a lady bug balanced on the tip of a blade of grass. The image was actually not manipulated at all, but rather a great photo taken by a photographer who using skill and talent composed a fantastic photograph. All of that talent was thrown out the door and chalked up to computer trickery. This misconstrued perception of photography has overtaken the medium like a disease. Its a mass hysteria that the majority of people now suffer from. Since digital art is so commonly grouped with photography it is now confused for photography. Worst of all photography and digital-art are now forced to compete with each other. People have become so accustomed to seeing altered photographs and digital masterpieces that they no longer believe photography. When confronted with an actual stunning photo most assume it was manipulated somehow, no way somebody could actually take a good picture! The average viewer however cannot be blamed, they have been programmed to think this way.
Many of the images you find throughout various photography outlets are in reality are no more photographic in nature than a station wagon is a truck. Contests often award manipulated photos, some even openly state that altered images are accepted yet they still call themselves a “Photography Competition”. Photography Magazines commonly feature work that is in actuality some type of digital illustration. Individual artists also play this game. Many don’t even hide the fact they alter or create their images digitally yet still call the finished product photography rather than mixed media. Its like the wild west where anything goes and with this kind of chaotic atmosphere its no wonder pure photography has become lost in the storm.
The lie has been kept alive by the entire photography world. Artists, contests, galleries and even prestigious photography publications have all played their part in this deception. But it must come to an end, there is no justification for this dishonest portrayal of photography to continue on any longer. It is not fair for photographers to have there work so casually mixed in with other types of media. How can we so easily toss out all the skill it takes to be a photographer and confuse or even compare it with the skill it takes to operate a computer? Imagine if a painter used a computer to alter a painting or a sculpting contest awarded a charcoal drawing. The painter would be called a fraud and the contest would be boycotted. For some reason though these type of ethics are allowed in the world of photography. It is a very misleading practice which has diluted the worlds perception of what photography is. Some clarity is needed and it is time for some guidelines to be set for the sake of integrity.
The first step should be clearly and accurately defining what a photograph is. To do this lets use a dictionary, it is very hard to argue with. Here is the definition of a photograph via Oxford Dictionary: PHOTOGRAPH - A picture made using a camera, in which an image is focused onto film or other light-sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by chemical treatment, or stored digitally. Now the definition of photography via Merriam-Webster: PHOTOGRAPHY -the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (as film or an optical sensor). Thats pretty straight forward and simple to comprehend. Now please bear through a couple more definitions. The next is digital-art which, is a little tricky to find. It is not specifically defined in many major dictionaries. Though this is really not surprising since it is not yet fully recognized as a form of art. There are several good attempts at a definition throughout the web, here is one via wiki: DIGITAL ART-a general term for a range of artistic works and practices that use digital technology as an essential part of the creative and/or presentation process. Please notice the “as an essential part” portion of that definition. Now for the final definition and possibly the most important to this topic. It is Mixed Media also via wiki: MIXED MEDIA-the use of a variety of media in an entertainment or work of art.
It doesn’t take a lawyer to read these definitions and understand that all three of the above mediums (photography, digital art, mixed media) are completely different art forms. By definition you are either a photographer creating photography or you are not. If you are using digital software as an essential part of your work then you are a digital artist. If you are combining multiple mediums for example photography with digital manipulation then you are making mixed media. The place where things may get hazy is the line between acceptable and non-acceptable digital photographic practices. In other words, how much photoshopping is to much.
Where is the line in the sand, when has your photograph changed into something else? Of course just because you use a computer program to work on your photographs doesn’t mean you are less of a photographer. Photoshop and similar programs are wonderful time and money saving tools. In fact photoshop at its core is really just a digital darkroom capable of mimicking many of the tasks one would perform in a traditional darkroom. Since the digital darkroom can emulate the traditional darkroom some actions are of course fair game. Simple things like cropping or resizing a photo are acceptable. Other natural actions would include exposure correction, toning and combining exposures. Dodging and burning is one the oldest dark room tricks in the book. This method was most famously used by Ansel Adams to darken or lighten specific areas of a photograph. Also, any modern day photographer knows that digital cameras get dust in them so it is fair to get those dust specks out. All of these actions have been a part of photography since its conception and will continue to be wether done digitally or naturally. Simply put, anything that you could or would reasonably do in a traditional darkroom setting is acceptable to the digital photographic process. If you are unsure where your work falls, then ask yourself, could you have created that photo without the use of any computer programs. If the answer is no, call it mixed media or digital-art.
It is time to call a spade a spade. It is clear that a new art form has been born, digital art, no more ignoring it and calling it photography. When the two are combined (photography and Digital-Art) its clearly mixed media. True photography is its own medium and it should not be diluted with other types of imagery. As an artistic medium photography is at a tipping point and its integrity is at stake. On the same hand digital-art is at the point where it could be recognized as a legitimate art form or just continue being swept under the rug. It would be in the best interest of all parties that photography and digital-art part ways and stop sharing the same roof. This would purify and reclaim true photography for the beautiful art form that it is. It would also help to vindicate the work of digital artists who deserve to have their artwork recognized and presented as an independent medium. Photographers and digital artist would then have a more fair and honest environment to grow and develop in, unhindered by each other.
This whole thing really just boils down to ethics. An artist knows in his or her gut what they have created and should be obligated to state it honestly. This obligation should not only apply to individual artists. Authorities on art and photography should be held to an even higher moral code and have the decency to accurately judge, award, feature and present an image for what it really is. Please understand this is no way meant to judge the artistic merit of anyones’ artwork. Create whatever you want, however you want and more power to you! There just needs to be some clarity on what is actually being created.