Image Manipulation: Is It Worthy of Being “Photography”?

by Miserere


     There is no such thing as a photograph that isn’t postprocessed.
    –Miserere’s 9th Truth about Photography

A picture over at recently sparked a heated debate when is was named Picture of the Week. Take a look and judge for yourself:

Visiting Winter, by Ceslovas CesnakeviciusCeslovas Cesnakevicius – Visiting Winter

The big issue amongst the detractors of this choice was that, in their view, this was not a photograph, but an image. It seems a committee decided on a hierarchy of artistic worthiness and decreed that photographs were better than images. What’s worse, they forgot to send me the memo. Now I’ll have to guess that paintings are somewhere between photographs and images, and comics are below all of these. Or maybe paintings are way above anything else. I wouldn’t know—I didn’t receive that memo either. I suppose children’s drawings are all the way at the bottom of the scale, unless they’re your kids, in which case they may be at the very top.

“Art is Art, and I don’t give a damn how it’s produced. The only question is: Does it move me?”

Bearing in mind that many people don’t even consider Photography to be an Art, I find the discussion of manipulated images amongst photographers to be ironic at the very least. As you may have guessed from my tone, I am not of the opinion that there is such a hierarchy. Art is Art, and I don’t give a damn how it’s produced. The only question I think is important is: Does it move me?

The answer to this question when it comes to Ceslovas’s photograph is a resounding yes. I’m sorry, did I offend you? I meant to say Ceslovas’s image. One of the comments that popped up a few times and which had me scratching my head went something like this: I really liked this photograph, until I found out it was a manipulation and entirely made up. Now I don’t like it that much. This tells me something about many fellow photographers that had so far escaped me: they see photography as a way of recreating reality, and the quality of a photo is directly proportional to how well it accomplishes this goal.

It makes complete sense to me now (thanks to my acute 20/20 hindsight) and explains why so many photographers are vehemently against image manipulation. My personal view was always that Photography is Art, and as such, is charged with interpreting reality, not reproducing it. It’s no different to painting, only the medium changes. Can you imagine going over to van Gogh and telling him that his stars were out of proportion to the Moon and that the sky wasn’t swirly in real life?

van Gogh - The Starry Nightvan Gogh – The Starry Night
(a sloppily manipulated image of disproportional stars, full of sharpening artefacts)

I doubt Ceslovas is too concerned with how things look like in real life; he’s probably too busy letting his imagination fly and his cyber-brush flow. The image that sparked the debate on is a composite of 4 photographs with the addition of a walking figure through software. Is it not a photograph because it is composed of 4 different images? In that case, this following image would not be photograph either as it’s composed of two separate exposures (or maybe the cut-off is three?):

Kalamakia - Full Moon RisingKalamakia – Full Moon Rising

Maybe a photograph becomes an image when you add an element external to the original scene through software or other means. Or maybe the real question is this: Does it really matter what we call it? If you’ve read other posts of mine you might have noticed that I use the terms photograph, image and picture interchangeably. Photography is simply “writing with light”, so in theory, the moment you treat or alter a photograph with a computer you have stopped writing with light and thus transformed it into an image. This means that any photograph produced with a digital camera is no longer a photograph as the photons of light have been converted to electrical signals, which are then manipulated by the CPU (computer) inside the camera. I’ll have to send that memo out as soon as possible: News flash! Unless you’re shooting film you’re not really taking photographs, you’re actually just making images! Can’t wait to send this out to my mailing list.

“What do you plan to do as a photographer? Reproduce reality, or produce Art?”

So again I ask: Does it really matter what we call it? If “it” (the image, photograph, whatever) moved you, however little, then it’s Art. If it’s left you indifferent, then who cares what it’s called! Check out Ceslovas’s portfolio and examine his wit, humour and mastery of digital techniques; let yourself be blown away by his imagination and simply enjoy the ride. He has a camera, a computer, and a vision. He is an artist, and Art is what he does.

What do you plan to do as a photographer? Will you reproduce reality, or produce Art?

Ask yourself that question next time you look through your viewfinder.


9 Responses to “Image Manipulation: Is It Worthy of Being “Photography”?”

  1. Good post !
    Reproduce reality or create art. One could argue that reality is just a perception and how one perceives their reality could be way different to how another perceives it to be. What interests me above all is how one, with manipulation or without, portrays their reality at any given time. Also another thing, is a photograph a true non manipulaton ? A photograph is a crop of something be it a landscape or anything else, it is impossible to capture the whole “reality” and therefore depending how you shoot one can easily manipulate a scene to be something different, and this is without the aid of photoshop or any other imaging software.
    It does amaze me why some insist that a “pure” photograph is superior to that of a minipulated image, or futhermore, if one uses photoshop or any other means then they are less skilled photographers than those who do not. Oh but wait… post processing. Adjusting contrast, colour saturation, cropping and so forth. Is this considered manipulation ? I think so but yet this seems to be more accepted than say cloning things out or adding things (as an example). It’s very silly in the end I think. If the image is a good one however it was produced then what’s the problem ? If the image moves someone, brings joy, tears or whatever then what’s the problem ?

    I don’t have a problem with image manipulation. The only time that I do have a problem is when it is done to trick (magazines/newspapers come to mind ?).

  2. I think it is fair to make a distinction between this type of composite and a photograph–this is NOT a photograph. I think adding a foreign element like a moon also means it is not a photograph. I think many of us do make this distinction for certain reasons but where we draw that line and what that distinction means to us varies. For me? Cloning out a distracting element here and there may be acceptable for art (not news) photography, but it sort of matters just how much. HDR, or combining multiple exposures for increasing dynamic range? Could be photography. Replacing a sky with one more dramatic? Not really–this is pretty much like adding or enlarging the moon. Historically speaking I’m sure there are those that consider certain amounts of or techniques in darkroom manipulation to be beyond ‘photography’ as well. Is solarization photography in the classic sense…?

    Now what does this distinction mean…doesn’t mean it isn’t art. Doesn’t mean it can’t be attractive or inspiring. It does suggest a more substantial break from reality–surrealism. Some people relish in the ‘hunt’ for good ‘found’ images. Many landscape photographers might pride themselves on getting out at o-dark-thirty several days in a row to get the right weather & lighting. These people may look down on this sort of outright manipulation during post-processing almost as ‘cheating’ and de-value their work as such. No doubt many street photographers would share similar attitudes as their craft also values the ‘found’ image.

    Another thing that I’ve observed is that many folks think photo manipulation is much easier than it is and don’t always respect the amount of skill and time that can go into it.

    One more note about manipulation of news images–these images are meant to be news, not art. Elements should not be added or removed–the images should strive to put the viewer ‘there’ as best as possible without too much interference from the photographer or editor. People don’t want to have to wonder whether or not the image is ‘true’ in this case.

  3. Mis, While I really enjoyed your article very much, I have to say that I agree with Andrew.. I had a similar discussion with my daughter a few weeks back. I was commenting on landscape and sun rises. Those that know me, know I struggle with those and can’t for the life of me get a photograph that is worth keeping. It is always one thing or another. To hazy, to much white sky, to much blue sky, no clouds, to much this and not enough that. I have been trying for the past year to get something I am happy with including going out in the rain and staying out late or getting up early…She tells me. ”Oh dad, I can perfect the look your after in photo shop. I can add this and that….I said..NO. That would not be my image, but ”adobe’s” image….

    So to me, seeing a perfect image like that is ”ART” but not a photograph.

    Now certainly, I can see PP as being part of the photograph. Cropping, resizing, curves, working with colors and even the clone stamp works for me, but when you get to the ”adding” of stuff, then it changes.

  4. Ewan O'Sullivan Says:

    To me, the whole problem with this debate – purism vs manipulation – is that you’re trying to deal rationally with an area that is not amenable to rational argument. Considered unemotionally, I think most people would agree that manipulated images can be art, that we all manipulate our photos on some level, that we all set our own rules about how we should create our images, and that those rules are very subjective. But our attitudes are emotional, not rational, and those admissions do not change how we feel about individual images. For me Ceslovas’ image is artistic, but it is not a photograph, even though I recognise that I could not seriously expect to defend that opinion on an objective basis. I think this is a very interesting area to discuss, and a great idea for a blog post, but as with politics and religion, nobody’s opinion is likely to be changed.

  5. Not quite a “photo” to some…? Not really “art” to others…? Perhaps just an “image” to some folk out there…? Fair enough…

    Just wondering, can we call it “phartage” then…? 🙂

  6. Jose, your post here is one of the best ones up to date.

    I agree with you on this. Photography itself is an art. If it is not an art, it is an art to learn to know what photography is.

    This image is pleasant and a photograph in its own right. This is simply because this image captures the vision the photographer wants the viewer to see. And I see it! Pure, heavenly, fantasy and a lot more. It is something to look at again and again. Very soothing.

    Photography is about light painting. It is really up to the photographer to paint using all kinds of light. So this image fits my idea of photography

  7. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, guys. Thanks for sharing them. Like Ewan said, everyone has their own ideas and understanding of Art and it’s unlikely to change. But that’s fine, we’re just having a conversation here.

    That said, Paul may have come up with a very appropriate term to reconcile all points of view 😀

  8. This is a very tough subject. When I saw that image on, I reacted negatively to it because it was obviously a ‘construct,’ not a photograph. My negative reaction wasn’t due to some objective ‘line-crossing’ or something, but rather that it just looked ‘over the top,’ or ‘too much.’ I thought some more about it when I read these comments and I concluded that I just didn’t like the way the image knit together, photograph or not. I mean, heck, Ansel clearly manipulated many of his images very heavily. This is a very tough issue for me to make sense of.

  9. Chris, I’m with you. Even though I support the value of analyzing it and don’t necessarily devalue it because it is a composite, the more I look at it, the less I like its composition. And since this is a construction, what is there other than composition? The artist had complete control over that.

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