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Has the Digital Medium Changed Everything?

Shops in Jackson, Wyoming Copyright  2012  Rich Pomeroy (taken with my Canon G11)

Shops in Jackson, Wyoming
Copyright 2012 Rich Pomeroy (taken with my Canon G11)

38 years ago, I became fascinated with photography, as a hobby and art form. My inspiration at the time was a college professor who was an accomplished landscape and nature photographer. I lived in Vermont, which is pretty much a nature studio, so it seemed pretty natural that I pursued outdoor and nature subjects, and in particular, “landscape.”

The “medium” of photography back then would seem much like “alchemy” to the youth of today. We used strange, cellular strips of stuff called “film,” which had silver crystals which changed from light to dark when exposed to light, to create 2-dimensional “images.” After exposing them to light, we immersed them in a smelly, chemical bath and then after drying them out, we had images that could either be projected with a beam of light, or printed (with yet another silver crystal, light-exposure, chemical bath process).

“Not everybody trusts paintings, but people believe photographs”

Today, most of us have moved on to a digital capture, digital presentation, or printing process which is much more “behind-the-scenes” mathematical, but much easier for most of us to accomplish, because it uses computer technology that today, most of us take for granted and most of us own. The “math,” as I noted is behind the scenes for the most part, with relatively user-friendly, graphical user interfaces (like sliders, circles, brushes, and drawing tools).

Tug Boat in Caribbean Waters Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Tug Boat in Caribbean Waters
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

We are still making images and for the most part, as presented, they appear to be the same. But is it? “Old school” photography was “realistic.” The whole idea was to try to depict a photographic image that looked as “real” as the scene being “caputured.” Wasn’t it? As a relatively new medium, photography was very distinct from painting. One of our most famous American landscape photographers, Ansel Adams, was reputed to remark that: “not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.”

Today’s reality is that observers simply do not trust most photographs any more

That may have been true during his era, but alas, I doubt that is true today. Indeed, I often hear the remark, “that has obviously been ‘photoshopped.'” And, I frequently have people ask me about my own images: do you “enhance” them? A couple years back, a New York Times photographer was fired for “enhancing” his photographs, by moving some of the subjects around. Today’s reality is that observers simply do not trust most photographs any more.  Edit:  I was corrected, this morning, by a source of the highest integrity.  No New York Times photographer has, to my (or my source) knowledge ever been fired for “manipulating” images.  I was recalling an event about a Los Angeles Times photographer during the Iraq War.  It was widely publicized at the time and he apparently cloned-in persons rather than moving anything around.  There is enough misinformation around without me unnecessarily adding to the mix.  My point is/was that photographs do get “manipulated” by different persons for different reasons.  I might be a “bad” thing in some instances.  It is not always “bad” and “manipulate” very often takes on an unneeded pejorative slant in this context.

The real truth is that the photographic art form has never really depicted “reality.” You cannot hear, smell, or feel a photograph or its surroundings. It is, at best, a fleeting instance of time—frozen. It is a momentary image “captured” by whatever medium is currently the best suited for such capture (and, perhaps, best suited for the photographer’s intended result). It is up to the photographer to create in the viewer the reaction and emotion to the image that creates a “being there” kind of result (whatever and wherever the photographer intends that to be).

Photographic art form has never really depicted “reality.”

The reportage “branch” of photography (as in the New York Times example above), and photography intended for evidentiary or scientific use must, almost by definition approach “reality” as best the photographer can present it (and even then, it can only be that photographer’s best interpretation of reality. The shooter must persuasively depict the subject in a manner that supports the proposition being illustrated. And, since in news, scientific illustration, and evidence, the proposition is factual reality, the image must accurately portray that proposition. In my view, in virtually every other kind of photographic imagery (or in other words, artistic imagery), there is no need to be so realistically accurate.

Fall Color Abstract; Pete's Lake Hiawatha NF Copyright  2012  Andy Richards

Fall Color Abstract; Pete’s Lake
Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

I absolutely digitally enhance my images

So, in artistic photography, the photographer is free to create (or as Ansel Adams once also said, “make”) his imagery. I said above that I am frequently asked if I “enhance” my images before printing or displaying them. The answer is yes, absolutely! Why wouldn’t I? I generally have one of two (sometimes the result is a blend of both) objectives in my landscape imagery. I want to recreate on screen or print what I “saw” at the scene; and/or I want to enhance a scene that fits within my imagination of what could have been. Of course, sometimes, in post shooting review (and – rarely – during a shoot), I will envision something more surreal or unrealistic and think it may still be a cool art form. But mostly, I am looking for “realism.”

I keep using the word, “realism,” and perhaps it appears, somewhat inconsistently. Realism is one of the funny words that (in the words of a famous U.S. President), “depends on your definition of the word.” My definition is set out above (what I saw, or what could have been). I am not shooting evidentiary or reportage shots. In that genre, it seems important that we depict, as closely as possible, what “was.” But even then, it is not really possible to have a uniform, concrete definition of “real.” If 3 people come upon a scene and are asked to describe it afterward in their “minds-eye,” I guarantee you will get 3 different descriptions. We see arrangement of elements differently. We remember things that struck us and they are likely different than others saw and remembered. We perceive color, light and contrast differently. So, it’s very difficult to photographically represent factual realism – because that is a moving target.

Chili Ristra, New Mexico   copyright 2008  Andy Richards

Chili Ristra, New Mexico copyright 2008 Andy Richards

Realism depends on your definition of realism

Yes, I believe digital photography has “changed the world,” and is very different from film photography. But I don’t think the fundamental idea of what images represent have really changed at all. It may be easier for more of us to “manipulate” images. By and large that is at least a neutral thing, and in my view, a positive thing. And, “manipulation” of imagery is not a “new” result of the digital age. Alchemic photographers spent hours and hours in the darkroom, “manipulating” images. What digital has done is opened up a whole new world of manipulability, to a much larger set of users. In terms of my comment above about nowaday observers not “believing” images, I have no problem with having a healthy skepticism about what a photographer says the image depicts. But that doesn’t mean disbelief. And, as shooters and observers, we have – perhaps – a responsibility to view imagery in context. Art is art. I am not sure what real is or what is real. J

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8 Responses

  1. Andy, good article.

    I think digital has changed how the masses think about photography. Most didn’t know when they took their roll of film to the photo lab that the lab’s printer made all kinds of adjustments to make the photo pleasing to the customer.Had they printed the photo as it came from the negative, their customers would have been disappointed.

    Most people think that the camera is the absolute arbiter of the scene. Somehow they think what the camera captured is an exact replica of what the photographer saw and that any changes are “enhancements”. Oh, that it were so.

    Anyone who knows anything about photography probably regards Ansel Adams as one of the great photographers of all time. But his greatness wasn’t because of what came out of the camera, it was because of his post processing. I don’t mean to minimize his camera work, but he could turn an ordinary photo into a masterpiece in the darkroom.

    Because of the abuses of some photojournalists, the general population is now aware of how photos can be altered. Previously they were in the dark. It is that awareness that has changed.

  2. Great points, Al. I probably could have articulated better, what you said in plain words. Digital hasn’t changed the essence of photography, but it has changed how people view photography as a medium.

  3. Last night we saw the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. It was Star Wars on steroids. Digital has changed everything. Just ask Rocket Raccoon. Or Howard the Duck.

    • LOL, Stewart. It is pretty amazing to see the difference in the cinematography between the first 3 Star Wars movies (actually the last 3) and the newer ones. Will have to put Guardians of the Galaxy on my list

  4. Good piece, Andy. Perhaps something positive will come from this awakening, on the part of the general public, to the fact that photographs can depart from reality (for lack of a better means of expressing the point): a recognition of photography as a full-blooded art form. I can dream, can’t I?

  5. […] with one of my earliest posts, “Get Real,”  and for example, “Has The Digital Medium Changed Everything?,” and “Photoshop Is Not Evil,” over the years I have been writing here, I have […]

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