The Photography Lie

The Photography LieWhat 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.

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222 thoughts on “The Photography Lie

  1. Common response to the experience you describe – I’ve had it also when I display pre-computer era photographs – is to rant or knock what might but usually isn’t called CAP photography – (computer-aided, cf. CAD, or computer aided design); or in one way or another to patiently explain what and how you make photographs. Question is, do you or others have another approach or take one or the other of these two?

    Actually I think CAD has been retired from descriptive service since its now the norm. Might be a message here.

    • I don’t like to knock any type of technique. For me I clearly state something like, “Straight Photography” or “Photography, No Manipulation” (seems backwards I have to say “no manipulation”…). I have never had a problem with that from the public, 100% of the time they immediately understand what I mean, its great. I have however experienced some problems with it from other photographs, which is very interesting and I want to visit that in a future post. A few times I have taken the “its just art” route and said nothing unless asked though many went away thinking my work was something other than photography.

  2. Taylor, I am a commercial photographer…I have been since before digital came along. It’s how I make my living…I’m the guy with a van full of lights…..see, the way I look at it, I take the Greek roots of “photo” (light) and “graph” (to write), as Sir John Hershel so named the process after the former term “heloigraph” or writing with sunlight. I write with light. The camera is just an appliance, just like an oven is an appliance. Owning an oven does not make you a chef…it makes you the owner of an oven….owning a grand piano does not make you a grand pianist…..etc. Owning a camera is the same thing. The camera is nothing more than a recording machine for light. It’s the reflections you choose to capture, as the light caresses a subject, that make the story you are illustrating…the camera does not know what you are pointing at, it just blindly reacts with a push of a button. You have to dial in the settings, just like on an oven….(I’ve never seen an “A” setting -for Auto- on an oven, blender, toaster or any other appliance. Real photographers see. The camera is the tool that teaches one to see, without a camera. Your darkroom manipulations were part of photography…point made…but photography has had a dance with technology from the beginning….as it was a product of science. Film and film processing was about the least “green” invention ever devised by photographic scientists….I know I ran every process in my studio lab…..film processing HAS to die….digital allows us to communicate and collaborate with our clients and subjects, instantly…photography was always the black science….trip the shutter and what the hell happened? You had no idea….imagine trying to learn to play a musical instrument by waiting to process the sound you were making….how would you know? We learn through feedback. An instant image allows creators the feedback to meet their concept….or to inform of a “mistake” ….I agree that “digital artist” and photographer are two different mediums…but my commercial clients demand that backgrounds be removed, metal flaws fixed from prototypes, so that they can market their creation….we could never do that in a darkroom, or add decent type, or make our products more saleable to our client…if someone else can do it better, they will get the work. I flatter every client…trust me, the paintings of European royalty made centuries before photography flattered the subject as well…or the painter would be without hands soon.
    We all make images…to pigeon hole the term “photography” and not include the men and women behind a “movie” camera because the image is moving, and not call them photographers, sure messes with the “director of photography” on every set….so let’s be a little gentle and just enjoy how everyone is pushing the art…soon, who knows, we may have 3D and holographic images created…will that be Photography too?

  3. Reblogged this on In Vienna with a Camera and commented:
    Great article. Needs to be discussed more.
    But, when thinking about individual artists, the problem, in my opinion, is not just their ignorance or inability to adequately define and categorize their work. But also their will to concealment the details of their work. Without their original image being made accessible they claim that the image is still a photograph that was created in the traditional dark room standards.

    Also one other issue is the modifying/altering the object or the surrounding in the shot, and still claiming that the result photo is of documentary value. I have heard this about some of the most iconic photos. And I am still indecisive about what the standards on this matter should be.

  4. There is a extremely simplistic way (that is, not entirely bullet proof) of distinguishing photography from any other digital art form. Have you moved pixels around? Have you copied pixels from one place to another in the image? If so, that might be a hint of you doing digital art, not photography.

  5. Very nice topic Taylor and I do see things from your standpoint however things have evolved and we can’t help it. Like our language adds up new terms due to the need of the times, buildings looked way too different from when humans started building them, the arts, the technology even the food have changed over the years. It just happens that way and we can’t help and stop it. This is no different in Photography.

    It is still the same as how it was originally defined only, the tools have become modern like everything else around us. It’s just a matter of embracing the “change” and knowing how to use the tools really well without crossing the line of its original definition or how to “state it honestly” like you mentioned.

    My husband is a digital matte painter but like any other digital artist, he would totally disagree if you also refer him as photographer because he doesn’t do photography.

  6. At my own exhibition, a couple of years ago, the majority of people wandering through would either whisper their doubt at the authenticity of my work, or ask me straight out if I’d used software filters. My photographic methods are as old as the camera itself, yet, people automatically assume I have used software trickery. Needless to say, I won’t ever exhibit my work in a public gallery again.

  7. Myself and many of my colleagues went through this same thought process in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when desktop computing completely destroyed our industry (35mm film-based multi-image audio-visual presentations). The same thing happened later when digital cameras came on the scene; I remember well the days of when the photography Luddites raged that *anything* captured electronically (or with battery-powered anything) was heresy and should be forbidden from legitimate photography exhibitions and competitions.

    So… welcome to the club. I appreciate your bluntness and passion, but — honestly? — that ship sailed long ago.

    I use a camera. Depending on the day and my mood, it may be a 35mm film camera or it may be a digital camera (DSLR, mirrorless, iPhone, or whatever I have access to). But I also use a digital darkroom. Why? Control. I have the ability to manipulate amazing levels of control and repeatability with my images, far more than I ever had in a chemical-based darkroom. Speed and cost figure into that equation as well. My images? All are touched by photo applications in some way before they are ever seen by an audience; some are hardly touched at all and others are heavily post-processed.

    So what am I? A photographer? An artist? I also happen to have a communication arts degree in graphic design and worked as a pro in the creative field for over a decade — does that color things even more?

    You can call me what you want, just don’t call me late for dinner. I’m still a photographer no matter how you label me.

  8. Purists in photography love the process. Digital can’t replace that. It’s not just about a great image, it’s about the process. About an art form. I agree with all of your distinctions. Your post was so refreshing.

  9. I get what you are trying to convey. As a hobbyist photographer, I understand what you mean about digital art. Anyone can ‘shoot’ an image. Phones are now ‘cameras.’ The digital age has exploded with people posting all kinds of images. It still boils down to the vision of what you want to capture in the frame of the photo to portray what it is that you saw. I’m a believer of framing in good photos.

  10. Many of my friends (including my fiancé) completed either a degree in photography or digital production and it really is difficult now to get past the progress you made once you completed the degree. You may get weekend gigs, open a studio, or work with a company. These are all great opportunities. However, you are constantly struggling with the soccer moms with digital cameras who tell their friends they are “photographers” and offer to shoot a wedding for $50. To anyone with any experience in the field, you know that those photographs are going to be very poor quality. You know that though it is more expensive, paying a professional who has access to proper lighting and equipment will result in breathtaking photographs that simply can’t compare to the photographs you get from someone who doesn’t have a clue what ISO means. The problem is that so much of the world doesn’t see past the cheap option to even consider the pros of a professional photo.

  11. I agree so much with your comment about how photographic competitions are really photoshop competitions, and how photography has become synonymous with photoshop, to the detriment of photography. I happily call myself a purist, I do own a copy of PS but I have never actually used it, if the image isnt good enought in camera to have a bit of tweaking in lightroom then its not good enough, simple as that.

  12. A long read, but you obviously had a lot to say. And I must tell you, I concur with every word. Brilliant post. This I will have to share, some of my fellow photographer friends will certainly enjoy this. Thanks for a great read.

  13. Reblogged this on MMPC Photography and commented:
    Some real thought provoking words about Photography and digital media or manipulation. When so we make that separation? Is there such a thing as purist in the field? Who is returning to wet plate film daguerreotype? Has the advent of digital blended or obscured our world of what is real or fake?

  14. I recently wrote my own piece about definitions (A Question of Definitions), as a reaction to your very excellent post, actually, but from the point of view of a mobile photographer who uses Apps to create art. These days I’ve evolved away from “photography” so much that I’m considering just calling myself an Artist. But even so, how does one distinguish oneself amongst millions of other artists, if not by genre? http://www.alyzenmoonshadow.com

  15. I am a visual artist and a photographer and like you I love the photographic process. I started in film and moved to digital but I also will not digitally enhance my photos more than I would have done in the darkroom. It was so wonderful and refreshing to read and have expressed all my concerns and feelings regarding digital manipulation. Nothing can ever replace the pure joy of seeing then capturing the world around us. As I see so many images with surreal colours that are passed off as photographs I have become increasingly more frustrated and determined to stay true to my craft and become better at what I do. This and your work has inspired me anew.

  16. I see your point clearly, in its puritan sense, and I mean that with the utmost respect. Not puritan, as in uptight, but puritan as in you want to maintain something that is pure. I also see photography as an art form, such as painting, that now, due to digital manipulation, can now be subjective, influenced, impressed upon by how the artist sees it as opposed to how it really is. I support both, albeit this synoptic commentary I so truly and humbly offer ~

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