It no longer surprises me when asked, “Was that photo manipulated?” What is surprising, is that I am still not prepared with a quick and short answer. It is question with many possible answers, and because of easy access to imaging technology, everyone is aware of the many ways to grossly alter film and digital images. While it is a common question, it’s answer can have some unexpected considerations. My thoughts on the manipulation question will be included in this and the next few posts.
Perhaps the most accurate answer ought to be, “Yes!” Then, adding, “There is no way — whether working in film or digital media — to go from camera to print without making adjustments to the image, unless you have a Polaroid.” This is valid answer, if I understood what is being asked. Frequently, I am not sure, unless there is additional interrogation.
The question does becomes clearer when asked if my colors were altered. I do try to capture saturated morning and evening colors in my shoreline images. So, to some extent such a comment acknowledges that my goal was met. For these questioners, I should offer an even more complex response, one that goes to the heart of what constitutes photographic art: Photographic art provides an interpretation of the world that might not otherwise have been revealed.
The Photographer as Artist: I will start off by saying that it strikes me as odd that viewers hold photographers to a more restricted level of reality than they do of painters. That is, questions on unusual colors or sharp contrasts in a photo will illicit comments on manipulation, as if that resulted in a fraudulent presentation. However, few would make a similar query about a Wayne Thiebaud or Henri Matisse landscape, which can have almost no connection with reality. In fact, it is their artistic disconnect with reality that makes their art so remarkable. It is an enigma worth exploring.
Let me say that for the most part, photogrpahers tend to fall into two broad categories: Those who report on reality (e.g., take snapshots at a birthday party), and those who offer their interpretation of the reality they saw (e.g., fine art photographers). The latter group attempts to provide a finished image that delivers something unique to the viewer — typically, an emotional trigger. Our focus is on the latter group and their manipulation of the captured image.
Ansel Adams’ Interpretation: To better understand what constitutes photographic ”interpretation”, look closely at prints of the photographic master: Ansel Adams. Consider any one of his best recognized prints of moonlit Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. These are some of his most striking images. I and thousands of other photographers have stood where he put his tripod. We have taken those same photos. We might get the same image in our view finder, but very few of us come close to delivering a printed image with the same emotional impact of an Adams’ print.
So, why don’t our final images rise to the level of the Adams’ print? The answer is that Adams’ interpretations of the mountain are his alone. First, he waited for the light he wanted, something that may be missed by the vacationing photographer. Next, he applied specific camera settings to best capture that light and, then he developed his prints in a very unique way. His manipulations of the negative and print produce a very special commentary on the world as he wanted to show it. The emotional feeling we get from looking at his prints was intentional. His printed images interpret that mountain peak in ways not easily matched by others.
Is this a manipulation of reality? Yes! His prints go far beyond reporting on the light and objects that were present. After looking at an Adams’ print, we might have imagined that we saw what he saw, but without his camera and darkroom manipulation, we wouldn’t have!
Adam’s Negatives and Prints: I recall one exhibit on Ansel Adams’ photography that illustrated his unique talent: An Adams’ negative, and next to it, his finished print from that negative. Looking at the two, you might find it difficult to believe the two are related. The negative is about as bland as a birthday party snapshot — it does have superb composition — but otherwise is quite drab. The printed photo is on the other hand strikingly brilliant and memorable. His finished print goes beyond reflecting just the reality retained on the negative or what you might see if you stood where he stood. The finished print offer’s Adams’ interpretation of the majesty of Half Dome. The finished photo triggers an emotional response that wouldn’t have occurred by simply looking at the mountain.
So yes, manipulation is a part of creating prints from the photographed image. Though, I should again remind the reader that this manipulation starts before the shutter moves. That is, it is not limited to only the development of a final print or Internet post. More on that in a later post.
The Two Photos: These two photos compare the raw image as captured by the camera — the color photo — and the finished image — the black and white photo. The finished image has been “manipulated” with techniques similar to the “dodge” and “burn” techniques used in the darkroom. Same photo, but one presents a rather different interpretation of this summer morning in southern Utah.
The photographic artist has an obligation to deliver an emotional trigger with each image, while not disconnecting the image from the reality of the original scene.
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