In nearly all matters related to art, what is most important is your opinion,
not the opinion of others who, because of the nature of art,
are unlikely to have the same vision as you.
An essay I read recently generated some reflections on the subject of photo manipulation. This is not a new subject for me. I have written previously about it, notably in the essay titled Just Say Yes which was published in 2006 and which you can read at this link: Just Say Yes
Even though the matter of digital manipulation has now been put to rest to a large extent, it still surfaces from time to time, and such is the case in this instance. Here is the link to the essay that I am referring to :
Notice how the title this essay compares to the title of my essay. My title is of course purposefully chosen to contrast with the preposterous statement of this other essay. I could have simply titled my essay ‘Not!’ but I preferred to use a complete sentence rather than the vernacular sense of not when it is used to deny the accuracy of a statement.
The essay in question focuses on a photographer who submitted a manipulated photograph to an important photo contest in England. This photographer won first place in the contest only to see his award taken away when the judges realized, a little late for sure, that his image was a collage of two separate photographs, the foreground coming from one capture and the sky and clouds coming from a second capture.
2 – Lack of disclosure, not manipulation, is the problem
I assume that this contest was open only to non-manipulated photographs, otherwise why take away his award? Therefore, for me the problem is not that the work was manipulated. The problem is that the photographer did not indicate that his image was a collage of two photographs when he entered the contest.
In my opinion the problem comes from the photographer’s approach to the contest. He should have made it clear that his photograph was manipulated, that the image he entered was a collage of two photographs and not a single capture.
I believe that once you make it clear that your work is manipulated, it is no longer is a problem because only two possibilities remain. First, if the judges had accepted to enter his image in the contest they would have done with with full knowledge of the facts. Second, if they had decided to not enter it into the contest the photographer could have looked for a different contest, one that accepted manipulated, or collaged, images.
In any case confusion, frustration and the feeling of having been wronged both on the part of the photographer and the judges would have been avoided.
3 – What should you do?
The question of course is what should you do in regards to your own photography? My answer is that you should use a full disclosure approach. If you manipulate, collage, etc. say so. If you don’t, say so. Don’t leave it up for people to find out on their own. This is particularly important if you enter contests because the rules are usually very specific in regards to manipulation or lack of. However, it is just as important if you sell your work. You don’t want your customers to find out when they get home that the photograph they believe was a single capture is in fact a collage of two photographs, or that the mountains have been stretched, the moon enlarged or pasted in and so on.
This does not mean that you have to say ‘by the way my work is manipulated’ to every one you talk to. Doing so is both fastidious and unnecessary. What it means is that you should mention it in your artist statement and you should have this statement available on your website, at shows if you do shows, and in any other places where you work is shown, exhibited or sold. In my case I go one step further. In addition to mentioning it in my artist statement, I also offer a 100% money back guarantee should my work not be manipulated. I of course take no chances in regard to giving refunds since all my work is manipulated. It cannot be otherwise since my motivation is the expression of my vision and not the desire to document reality.
It also means that if you are asked ‘do you manipulate your photographs?’ you should answer ‘yes.’ You don’t have to expand on it or try to justify your approach. Manipulation is not a crime. It is not legally reprehensible nor punishable by law. Neither your camera’s user manual or the Adobe Photoshop brochures mention that you should not manipulate your photographs.
The question ‘do you manipulate’ should be approached just like you would answer ‘do you have a car?’ If you do, say yes. If you don’t, say no. Justification is neither requested nor necessary. Most people will not press any further if you answer yes because they will be satisfied with your answer. If they do ask why, which is rare, I recommend answering just as simply by saying ‘this is art and art is by nature a transformation of reality, not a documentation of reality.’
If you want to press further you could quote Aristotle who said, well before digital photography, chemical photography or any form of mechanical reproduction or image capture was invented:
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.
4- What is art
This story of course bring up the question of ‘what is art’. Art quite simply is the expression of a personal emotion. It can be created with any medium in any way shape or form. Emotions can be expressed in as many ways as there are stars in the sky. Art is limitless and so are the forms that art can take and the mediums that can be used to create it. By stating that your work is art you embrace this freedom. You make it yours and when you do so the doors of self expression swing wide open.
The problem with the essay mentioned above, the one which generated this response, is that is seems as if the author does not believe that photography is art. While not saying so openly, the author’s comments point in that direction. According to O’Neill, ‘photographers have been messing about with photographs (read manipulate, my words) for a long time.’
This is only a start. The meat of O’Neill’s argument comes to life when he continues by saying that ‘Photography has always been a craft (as opposed to an art, my words)’ and that ‘There is nothing wrong with painting new images with Photoshop, just don’t call it photography’ (but he doesn’t say what you should call it then ).
And finally O’Neill’s final point, his apotheosis I would say, comes in full swing when he says:
It is something entirely different when a photographer wants to be an artist. An artist creates images from their imagination and that is a wonderful thing. Just leave photography to record what the camera sees not what the photographer wishes it had seen.
In doing so Mr. O’Neill both defines the purpose of photography and denies the possibility of creating art from it. He also makes it clear that photographers should not use their imagination and instead should just ‘leave photography to record what the camera sees.’ Photography therefore is documentation, or so says O’Neill.
Certainly the preposterous nature of this statement makes it comical. I am tempted to say ‘But of course. What was I thinking? Silly me to think that photography could be art!’
However laughing at this statement is only possible if you already believe that photography can be used to create art and that photographers can be creative and artistic individuals. If you do not believe this then there is a risk that this statement will be taken literally and that the reader will believe that photography is not a proper medium for art, for creativity or for personal expression.
To me this is the real danger of O’Neill’s essay, The fact that the internet makes it possible to disseminate his essay widely at low or no cost means that many more people are exposed to it than if it had been published in a print magazine read only by a small audience.
While we all know that not everything we read on the web is true, we also know that we can be influenced by non-truths and that students in their formative years are the most likely to be affected.
Certainly most will be able to see the fallacy behind O’Neill’s statement, laugh at it and go back to creating art with their cameras and with Photoshop. But while this is indeed possible, the real solution is to know what art is. The real protection is to find out for yourself first if you are an artist and second what art means to you. Doing this will protect you from O’Neill’s arguments far better than trying to ignore them.
The answer to the question what is art ? can be many things. Here is one answer, as said by James Johnson, a friend and student:
What is art to the photographer? For me it is capturing a moment, one that moves me from within. That spirit inside that almost makes you cry that it is so beautiful and captivating. The artist can only see with his heart. The French writer Antoine de St Exupery said in best in “The Little Prince”, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye”. If there is no manipulation, to bring out what is in the heart then it is not art. Anyone can make a snapshot!
And on this statement I will end this essay.
I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, How Photographs are Sold and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 4 books are available as printed books on Amazon.com and other bookstores and as eBooks on my website at this link: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Ebooks-Books-1-2-3.html
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I welcome your comments on this essay as well as on my other essays. You can reach me directly by emailing me at email@example.com.