Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Photo Manipulation

CNET's Stephen Shankland writes:

Every time Photoshop gets something like this, some folks--not without some reason in my opinion--get concerned that we can't trust the veracity of the images we see. But let's be clear: although the ease and sophistication of editing is increasing, photo manipulation has been going on for more than a century. And the way I see it, the profusion of digital cameras and ease of posting photos online probably means reality is being documented in unretouched form more comprehensively than ever.
I guess I largely agree although I was a bit shocked at the amount of manipulation that apparently happens in nature photography according to a recent article in Outside Magazine.

It's fair to say that the amount of "casual" manipulation will probably continue to increase. By this I mean the post-processing of fine art photography and other pictures that primarily serve an aesthetic purpose. Or the routine elimination of telephone poles and other distractions in snapshots posted to twitter.

A lot of photographers will decry this trend and I sympathize up to a point. Especially because there's rarely a hard line between art and documentary. But it's probably inevitable--at least outside of organizations that have strict editorial policies.

To their credit, news organizations have generally maintained strict policies and aren't especially tolerant even of what some might dismiss as minor retouching. Which is as it should be. One day you're removing an awkwardly positioned fence post. The next you're making the subject of a news photograph look more handsome or more haggard.

Stephen's other point on the increased documentation of reality is doubtless true. Indeed, there's now a game based on the concept.

Furthermore, with photographs from a variety of sources so widely distributed, we've already seen a variety of cases where readers have spotted alterations as likely would not have happened in an earlier age.

The general conclusion I draw is that, while photography has always been a selective reality, the arbitrary photograph will increasingly be "optimized" to a degree that would have taken, at a minimum, considerable effort in the past. At the same time, many sources and many eyeballs will tend to both capture and confirm reality when it matters most.


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