Where does a photograph stop being a photograph and start becoming something different? We’ll call it an ‘artistic interpretation’ for lack of a better description. Or, are they one in the same no matter what level of manipulation has been applied? I’ve been taking pictures for a while, more of my life than not if you don’t count the hiatus I took after college when I was bogged down with three jobs. I still have some shots from that time period, but they are few and far between. So, I feel like photography has been a part of my life for a while. I’ve not spent too much time thinking about it in these terms until recently. Prior, I’ve just enjoyed taking pictures but thanks to the internet and my epiphany that there are other people out there with opinions getting me to challenge my personal understanding, I feel like it is an entertaining idea to explore. Is anything done to a photograph, after an image has been captured, by way of any kind of manipulation actually doing something that betrays the purity of photography, or is it just part of the progression? Well… let us explore.First let me admit, I feel that this subject is more or less indefinable because it requires too many definitions of what I personally see as intangible entities. I say intangible because I can’t get 10 people to agree on the same definition let alone authorities on the english language. As a disclaimer, I’m just thinking out loud in an attempt to further facilitate an ongoing conversation. I don’t claim to have an answer to the questions posed, just opinions and personal definitions where I will appreciate others and their personal opinions and definitions, even when contradictory to my own. Alright now, that said, lets get to “defining” some of these intangibles…
The word PHOTOGRAPHY originally came to us by way of the Greeks, literally translating to “drawing with light.”
- “Photography” is defined by various sources as follows:
dictionary.com – the process or art of producing images of objects on sensitized surfaces by the chemical action of light or of other forms of radiant energy, as x-rays, gamma rays, or cosmic rays.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Ed. – the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and esp. light on a sensitive surface (as film or a CCD chip)
Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary online – (the activity or job of taking) photographs or films
- “Photograph” (noun) is defined by these same sources as follows:
dictionary.com – a picture produced by photography.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Ed. – a picture or likeness obtained by photography.
Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary online – a picture produced using a camera
A bit of gray area, but more or less straight forward I guess. The one thing that caught my eye was the use of the term “art” used in two of the first three definitions I found. Art, or the concept of what “art” is, has long been debated by artists, aficionados and self-important college students the world over. I’ll let you find your own definition of art, but to me, it is the use of a creative skill which produces something. It can be music, a painting, a piece of dog poo duct taped to a piece of paper and hung on the wall (seriously, I had some “creatives” accompany me for four years of ‘higher education’). What a creative skill is, to me can be just about anything. That being said, I think quite a bit of the “art” I’ve seen is utter crap (even much of my own), literally in some cases, so I am pretty liberal with my inclusion I guess. I’ve heard the term “the art of photography” used before more than once. I don’t think it is a stretch to consider photography “art.” Personally, I’ve gone back and forth between the idea that the act of taking a photograph is merely a documentation of something that already exists and isn’t “creating” anything (and by this line of thinking combined with my own definitions does not art make), but when altered, the photograph can become “art” by way of creating something different than what existed, versus feeling like there is an actual artistic element to the capture of what already exists. So, which is it, or is it neither? I have come to the personal conclusion that photography is art, to me at least.
Like many things ‘artistic’ I personally feel that it is entirely up to an individual to determine what it is and how photography and art co-mingle. If you take a picture and feel that you have done nothing to “create” something that did not already exist, then perhaps photography is not “art” but merely the capture and documentation of how light falls on and interacts with the world. But, in and of itself, isn’t the capture of this onto some physical capture device creating a medium that otherwise would not have existed? If a tree falls in the woods… Well, I guess it can be debated.
There are those that feel that manipulation of a photograph after it’s been captured in any way ceases to be “photography” whether that be digitally or in the darkroom. I can only assume, at this point, those that feel this way would have to admit that it at least becomes some form of art, or an artistic interpretive translation of the aforementioned photograph. The next point I’d like to explore, assuming we are all agreed that photography is the capture of light, and art has something to do with output of a creative skill in some way, lets talk about where photography stops being photography and becomes something else. Okay, so we live in a time where photographers have access to software and digital manipulation tools that couldn’t have been imagined a few decades ago. Whether you shoot film or digital, you have access to digital archival, manipulation, enhancement, etc. How many of us have rescued a poorly exposed photograph by being able to tweak the exposure levels in some type of software?
Personally, I love post processing and the tools that software has provided the modern photographer. Like many things in life, we have a choice to not use these tools or to use in varying quantities to suit personal taste. We can all agree there I’d guess. The point of contention though seems to be, how much is too much. When does a photograph cease to be a photograph? Does it ever cease to be considered “photography”?
Recently, I read through a thread on flickr where someone had made a comment that basically said they had a friend that felt anything done to an image after capture ceased to be “photography.” This is what tipped my interest in the topic as I feel that is a poorly structured blanket statement. Any digital camera is providing some level of processing and compression, yes even in RAW files as the A/D conversion that happens via the camera’s processors needs to convert an analogue image to a digital file. So, I took this comment to literally discount digital photography, but it had me thinking about past photographers. I used Ansel Adams as an example. I feel I would be hard pressed to find someone that legitimately thought his prints were not photographs. But, Mr Adams spent a good amount of time fine tuning both his capture and post processing techniques in the darkroom as did many of the past photographic masters. Simple dodging and burning by this particular argument would disqualify these as legitimate photography then and here in lies my interest. Photographers have been altering their photographs after the fact for as long as photography has been around. Through techniques in the development of film and print, way before digital photography existed, there have been many tricks of the trade to create an “altered” photograph. Sure, it was tougher to clone out stray hair, or unnaturally sharpen an image before Photoshop hit the scene, but isn’t this just the progression of the art form? New tools become available in many industries and art forms through research and development. Did the invention and introduction of electric instruments kill music? Does compressed air, when combined with paint in the form of an airbrush cease to be “painting,” or are these just examples of new tools being introduced to an art form further progressing it?
Sure, I feel that there are many photographers, and photographs that push beyond what I consider to be a level of processing that is “good” but I also recognize that to them, it may be just right. As is, I see much of the high end digital work being produced by not only photographers but digital artists, graphic designers, 3D imaging engineers and the like, utilizing photography as an element in the process to just be progressing photography as an art form. Is it photography, digital art or something different? I guess it comes down to personal definition. As is, it is hard to find consistency in traditional definition, so it is up to us to determine our own ideas on it as it pertains to our photography. Is digital (or darkroom) photographic manipulation in any form a move away from an image being a photograph and change it into art, or is it just our new photographic reality?