Grayson and Mike at Outside Magazine asked me to write an essay for their photography issue and we settled on the topic of photo manipulation. It’s certainly a hot button issue these days not only because of how easy it’s gotten to make realistic fakes but also because it’s gotten easier to publicly debate it and uncover forgeries that are passed off as real. I personally think we’ve reached the point where media organizations need to air out and in most cases simply create guidelines for what they believe is acceptable. Additionally they need to start informing their readers on the where’s, why’s and how’s of these policies. As many astute observers of media have pointed out, transparency in journalism will be a critical part of how media works in the future and the credibility of brands will hang on our belief that their intention is delivering some version of the truth.

You can read the full essay I wrote (here) and a response from Ed Freeman (here) but I wanted to discuss the conclusion I arrived at after interviewing dozens of people for the story. Photos that are faked are intrinsically tied to photos that are real. They draw much of their power from the public’s belief that photos never lie. Of course all of us know “the camera always lies” and the second you pick a lens or a place to stand you’re influencing the reality of the picture in some way. But, we can’t escape that the public still wants to believe in a photograph’s ability to tell the truth. So, people who take images that appear to be truthful but are really altered beyond reality are at some level destroying this bond.

What amounts to a forgery in photography is incredibly subjective and grey. And, like I said above I think it’s up to the media organizations to define and their audience to accept or reject. And really anything is possible now, so the “old darkroom techniques” aren’t really good anymore for guidelines. I believe very strongly that the intentions of whatever is done to the image, whether it is to represent what actually happened in front of the camera or to make what happened seem better than it actually was, help define what’s acceptable. One way organizations are starting to do that is to require photographers to submit RAW files to compare the finished images with (or what about just shooting film).

It seems helpful when thinking about this to look at writing because the same techniques that writers use to take research, raw dialogue and observation and then turn that into a story is no different than what photographers need to do when approaching a subject. So, why don’t we have fiction and non-fiction photography (I think photo-illustrations are different)? And why do we mix non-fiction stories with fiction photography. This seems like part of the solution and something other people have been indicating is a problem with the NY Times Magazine, because they appear to want it both ways. But, let’s be honest with ourselves writers stretch the boundary of non-fiction to it’s breaking point all the time. So, again it’s up to the publication to become more transparent about their guidelines and to not start blaming contributors when the readers show up with torches.

I think the place where I found this practice of photo fakery most troubling was in wildlife photography. Photographers in that genre will simply tack a “fine art” sign to their back and claim exemption from any need to replicate reality. The problem with this is that they more than anyone are benefiting from the public’s misguided belief that all pictures are real. My first interview for the piece was with Art Wolfe who way back in 1994 ignited a firestorm when he published a wildlife book entitled Migrations where a third of the images were fakes. Art was careful to point out that he didn’t misrepresent natural history and he called the pictures photo-illustrations. This was similar to a response I kept hearing from Steve Bloom when I tried to pin him down about a charge many people made to me that his wildlife images are mostly composites and extreme digital enhancements. Steve gave me incredibly evasive email answers in the vein of what Edgar Martins had to say about his dust up with the NY Times Magazine. Why can’t we just be honest and say “I did it because I wanted to make my photos look better than anyone elses”

And look, I’m not claiming I’m any sort of knight-riding-a-white-stallion either I’m just saying it’s time to start policing ourselves (starting with magazines) or else we’ll end up like the fashion industry and congress will soon be considering anti-photoshopping laws (I used to wish each month there was such a law when the owner’s of both magazines I worked at insisted we heinously paint the sky blue on the cover).

When people see an amazing photograph for the first time they usually ask, “is it real?” The answer should be yes.

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  1. What is ‘real’?

    The only photos that I wish to reflect what actually happened – does this constitute as being ‘real’ – is photos going with news articles. All other photos can be what they wish to be and manipulated as much as the photographer or publisher wish them to be.

    I see things differently that the person standing right next to me, and I wish my photograph to display what I see in my mind, regardless if anyone else sees it the same way.

    So, to the question of ‘Is this real?’ I would answer, ‘Who cares’.


    • @Jacques, This is a question of reality and how we as visual communicators choose to transmit our perspectives to the rest of the world. I recommend all photographers or anyone choosing to communicate a message to the masses read:

      “How Real is Real? Confusion, Disinformation, Communication” by Paul Watzlawick

      It truly challenges you to consider what “Reality” is for you and how you use it to communicate your own truth or lack there of to the rest of us.

      ~ Tammy

    • @Jacques,

      Who cares?

      People who care about truth in representation care. Photojournalism is supposed to be the truth about events that happen. But that one is too easy.

      Would you care if you bought a house based on photos that had been manipulated? Do you care that the hamburgers on McDonald’s menu look nothing like the real thing? People by now are rather skeptical of photos in ads, because most ads do not even attempt to act like they are selling the truth. They are selling an ideal. And sometimes people really care about the difference between that photographic ideal and the much less glamourous reality behind it.

    • @Jacques,
      I think that we have been living with the false illusion that photos were a representation of reality for too long anyway. Perhaps our perception is due for an upgrade. Published books on historical events, written accounts of events surely faced the same criticism. Were the personal written accounts, that were rewritten, published and then trusted as truth anymore true. It might be a good thing to let go of our reliance on media as a representation of factual information. It all goes back to integrity and defining trusted sources for factual information. Whose account of the day in the park is more “true”, the one taken with the photograph, the one painted by Seurat, the one we capture in our heart colored by our perception of the day in the moment or the written account of the author. Perhaps the only real truth is in the moment and it is only true to us. The view of the beautiful park from that of the family on their first picnic after a long week in the city, may be very different from the viewpoint of the homeless man who has woken from his sleep facing another day without. The picture has never been true, it has always been out of context, it is only a story told by the viewer and his experience in the moment and it is only one single frame captured in a multitude of frames that can never take in the whole experience. It is always upon the storyteller, the artist, and the photographer to represent his or her idea in a single frame or collection of words, sounds or color and line. Though there is not a replica of the whole reality, there is an opportunity to reflect on oneself through the story of another.

      • @Laragene,

        Very interesting answer from you; thanks for sharing.

        My perception and your perception of the same place and time may not be the same, based on our own internal filters and colouring of experiences.

        The way I see it on a higher level, is that everything is basically an illusion, a hologram, of what not is. This outwardly hologram is shaped by us internally, and we do so based on how we see our selves and how we feel about ourselves. An analogy for this is when one look into a mirror and see messy hair. When we wish to straighten our hair, we do not comb the mirror, we comb our own hair and then the mirror will reflect this change. So too with moments (holographic projections from within us), when we see or experience something we do not like, we only need to change something within ourselves with this outer hologram to change too.

        A photo taken of such a moment only reflects a part of the illusion as it was at that moment, so when we look at photos, we look at snap-shots of illusions. So when someone manipulates a photo, the illusion is merely changed with another illusion. Of course, what is important, is that we incorrectly choose to be affected by illusions, and this is why we need to be very weary of such untruths. Here is a short compilation of people touching on this matter:

        • @Jacques, I love the way you describe this. Wonder where the illusion begins and ends.

      • @Laragene, There’s what happened. Then there’s what I said happened and what you said happened. Be it the experience, or the telling of if in words or pictures, perception is in the mind of beholder.

  2. The broad brush of your story’s title would seem designed to attract reaction.
    I’m a photo illustrator/ manipulator and create images to tell a story or illustrate an idea for commercial clients. Reality is mostly irrelevant to my purposes and photography just another image-making tool in service of the image.
    However, the true target of the issue is where lines are drawn and standards set for photographic truth in support of journalism,news media and the like that are implicitly presented as true and real. I agree with the notion that transparency + media standards & guidelines need to be updated for the fluid power of the digital world. Personally, I’m not overly concerned with tonal and color manipulation in news media but would draw a line excluding use of image compositing. Stick with just the content captured in that single slice of time.


    • @John Still,
      Well said. Journalism has other things to worry about when it comes to truth than digital manipulation that is generally done by the inept and called out immediately. (Nobody is paying someone $350/hr to make their jpg agenda worthy.) They might put in a gun in someone’s hand or otherwise stage a photo to make it more interesting but..

  3. The Answer Is Yes…

    A Photo Editor asks if photo manipulation is bad for photography.

    While my title is flippant in nature, I would say in all seriousness that photo manipulation is bad for news photography. If the public can’t trust the photos that a news organizati…

  4. I don’t think photographers are responsible for the public’s belief. Portions of the adult public still believe that the Earth is flat and I do not hold Science teachers accountable for that either. Photography is an art form. Art does not have to replicate “reality.” Certainly photographs for the purpose of evidence and photojournalism would want to steer clear of artistic changes/editing but I feel that as an art form, photography has entirely too much politics and too many rules. For the concept of fiction and non-fiction photography, I do not feel that the lines are as easily delineated as it would be with writing. If I clear-up a person’s skin in a portrait, that is not exactly how the person looks, but the photo is of the person. Does that portrait then become non-fiction? Too many rules, too many boundaries. Photography is both art and science but certainly not politics.

    • @Trudy,

      This is very much related to the no-makeup issue of French Elle.

      Jezebel had a thoughtful post on the whole thing here:

      Its hilarious that something so simple as ‘no makeup’ should be such a big deal. And that it makes us ‘question the artifice’ inherent in all (not just fashion) photography. The whole argument here is that we have just accepted that artifice is rampant in photography, and that means that we have accepted deceit. All the more reason why truth in representation carries so much more power.

      • @Mason, I cannot think of any other art form subject to so many rules and politics. It’s the only art form where it has to even be defended on whether or not it is actually art. Amazes me, still.

        • @Trudy, Portraits may be an art form, but reportage photos should not be art — just reality.

          BTW not all portraits are an art form, just look at you drivers license!

          • @c.d.embrey, I didn’t suggest that photographs for reporting are art as I specifically stated “certainly photographs for the purpose of evidence and photojournalism would want to steer clear of artistic changes/editing…” in my original post. Portraits were only an example I used when discussing the idea of “fiction/non-fiction photography.” I just think it is interesting that no other art is be expected to be reality’s “mirror” except photography. I am speaking of the entire form of photography, not individual portraits or any other genre within it.

  5. I started taking pictures with my grandfather who took me on a trip to Ecuador with him. He is an entomologist and made his living through scientific study of insects and the sales of photography of those same insects.

    A guideline he set was never to shoot an insect or animal on a plant or location that it didn’t naturally alight upon. In cases where it was too difficult to get a shot in that sort of spot, he would note the species of plant it fed on or gravitated towards and then create a “set” for that insect under better shooting conditions.

    Often he would “cheat” to attract insects to areas he knew they frequented, using urine or something they liked. This was commonly done with butterflies. He always tried to be true to the natural world, portraying it as it really was but definitely had tricks for helping to make the shot work.

    It’s always interesting to contemplate the implications of action vs. motive.

  6. As editorial content has trended away from substance and towards advertiser-friendly advertorial, is it any wonder that images have followed?

    To me the question of real vs. fake could apply to any and every level in the publishing world. And that speaks to cultural forces as much as to what magazines have done. Which is not to let everyone off the hook by saying ‘it’s everybody’s fault – magazines are just giving the people what they want;’ more to say that it’s an unfortunately rare occurrence when any work is proactive and projects a personal voice, instead of just being reactive to the perceived desires of a market.

  7. I think it depends. I think a lot of people wont accept that people will like their work if they admit that it was composited or the pixels were manipulated to render the raw image being seen.

    I saw some very highly regarded work at “Review Santa Fe” where the artist was claiming all images were authentic and in camera when I could see they were (very obviously in some cases) digitally manipuated and composited photographs. I think the work is great , it has a great feeling and look, but I am disappointed that the photographer is afraid to say it was a composite or done through retouching.

    I retouch almost all of my work, but I rarely composite images. I like what photoshop can do for contrast and colors, its pretty awesome.

  8. Showing my age … If you can’t do it with Kodachrome you shouldn’t do it, period. If you want to make a politician look sinister, you can do it with composition and lighting, no need to ‘shop horns on his head.

    For years many artists use a photograph as a reference for their paintings — now many photographers do the same for their photos. But why bother? Just give the retouch-er a stick figure drawing on the back of a napkin and they will give you a realistic photo.

    • @c.d.embrey, That just seems like such an arbitrary line to draw. What is the difference between making someone sinister with lighting or with Photoshop? They are both manipulations, and they both depart from reality no matter what point in the process you do it.

      I don’t know about everyone else, but I experience reality as three dimensions. We all know “don’t believe everything you read” and images are made up of the same ink as the printed word.

      Photography has never been about depicting reality, it has always been a medium where the manipulation is integral to the image. All the hand-wringing over what you could or couldn’t do on Kodachrome or in Photoshop seems pointless.

      • @Brad Wenner, Why is it arbitrary? If something is “reportage” it should show reality. Where you place the subject in the frame has psychological implications. And shooting someone in backlight is different than them squinting because they are looking into the sun — but both are real.

        Back in the 1970s Campbell Soups got caught putting marbles in the soup bowls for TV commercials. The marbles made it appear that there were more vegetables in the soup. The Feds said you can’t do that and made laws to protect the public.

      • @Brad Wenner,

        I took a look at your online portfolio. All of your images are staged, produced and enhanced.

        I don’t think you have a dog in this fight.

        There is an incredible world out there that is exquisite in its own right. If you can get it on film (or digital) without manipulating the image later, why not get it without faking it.

  9. Photos have been manipulated for as long as there has been photography. I find all the hand-wringing about this topic kind of amusing — like the current generation just invented manipulated images. You can find manipulated images dating back to the mid-19th century.

    What has changed is the cost/time/skill associated with manipulating images has decreased dramatically. Previously you needed a dark room, expertise and LOTS of time to make a convincing fraud. Now anyone with moderate computer skills can do it quickly with fairly modest effort.

    It’s the volume of images available from undocumented sources that has really become problematic. As I’ve said before, it’s up to the publishers to verify the authenticity of the stuff they publish. What ever happened to editors being held responsible for content they approve for publication?

    Personally I think the real problem is too many editors have become oh-so-important middle managers who spend their days in meetings trying to look managerial so they can be promoted to ultra-important senior managers. The actual work of verifying facts and making sure editorial content is accurate gets lost in the more compelling daily task of toadying up. If more publications went back to the “trust but verify” model of editorial control a lot of these frauds would be uncovered before they were published.

  10. This is a fascinating discussion and I think it’s a great topic for Outside Magazine’s Photography issue. I don’t know a single photographer that doesn’t manipulate in some way but I agree that it would be in the best interest of organizations to clearly define their levels of manipulation. Easier said than done right?

    Personally, I think you would have to be slightly stupid or completely ignorant as a photographer to try to manipulate an image dubbed as “photojournalism” to sway the public’s opinion. Why bother? Somebody is going to call you out for it.

    Maybe media literacy and education is just as important as ethics in journalism. Regardless, news organizations are going to have an incredibly difficult time maintaining the trust of their readers.

    • @Chantal Matoso,
      Excellent. I’ve been meaning to read that book.

  11. I thought the article was a bit over the top.

    Who are you, and who is anyone for that matter, to dictate to an artist what media they are allowed to use and how they are allowed to use it in the creation of their art?! Did you grow up in East Germany? North Korea?

    • @Greg,
      Artists can do whatever they want. Magazines and Newspapers can set the rules for what’s allowable. Many magazines will call someone who’s quoted in a story to see if they actually said what’s written. Why don’t they do the same with the pictures in the story. Does the person really look like that? I think eventually they will have to, because in the past they relied on the limitations/time and effort required to manipulate something shot on film. National Geographic already requires everyone to submit the RAW files.

      • @A Photo Editor,

        Ed Freeman, the featured photographer in the article, is selling his surf images as art, not journalism to magazines and newspapers and National Geographic.

        What is the article about– art lying or photojournalism lying?

        You write, “Even worse, modern photo manipulation is seriously screwing up our concept of reality and our willingness to believe what we see in magazines like Outside.” Ed Freeman’s art and work like it is not responsible for screwed up interpretations of reality and such, “collateral damage”. So why is his work featured in the article under the title, “This Photo Is Lying to You”? Why didn’t you feature a Jerry Uelsmann image?

        Composited or Photoshopped art does not devalue anything.

        As Anthony posted, “Police yourselves”. Any adult incapable of discerning between art and journalism or the “reality” behind a cover of Vogue vs. a New Your Times photo essay, does not deserve anyone’s worry or concern.

        • @Greg,
          He calls it art but sells it to Getty. So, where it ends up is not up to him.

          The article is about photography, that is enhanced and manipulated and enters the purview of the public in a context where it can be construed to be real.

          Calling it Art does not give you a free pass. It’s everyone’s responsibility to maintain the veracity of editorial photography especially artists who draw inspiration from real events.

    • @Greg,

      Are we talking about an artist or a journalist?
      One creates for their personal gratification in hopes of finding a viewing public and one creates for the viewing public with the hope of reaching gratification.

      I’ve seen too many “photojournalist” shoot to win contest and manipulate images to win everything from “Sportsshooter” to “World Press”. At what point does this dilute the craft?

      • @Gary Miller, Well said! I find it disenheartning to find fewer and fewer that truly want to practice the trade of being a photographer.

  12. I might be a little confused and hopefully someone can help me out.

    I see a call for truth and realism, but nobody wants to hire the photojournalist.

    You get what you pay for when you hire an artist to illustrate your stories.

  13. […] By Jacqueline Bovaird, Glasshouse Assignment GREAT post on A Photo Editor today… Check it out here. This is an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while but […]

  14. Great Article! I like having the chance to read others thoughts on the subject before I put my fingers in the mix. I believe in accontablity, since the primary focus of the article is related to photojournalim and not ART there is a clear delineation of topic. As stated in the article journalist push the envelope of non-fiction reporting, they will chose words to give more impact or add more color than what was originally said by the interviewee.
    I think about Eddie Adams, he may have worked the contrast of an image in the darkroom to garner more to the emotional impact of the scene but he certainly didn’t create an image from composites. He was an artist of seeing the image as it needed to be.
    Photojournalist I think are following the times we live in, of get it fast before anyone else does, so it will be considered the best. In reality a photojournalist who practices the art of the trade eventually turns in a piece that conveys the reality and truth with some adjustments to contrast and maybe color.
    To me if it wasn’t in the frame when the release was pressed it doesn’t belong with an article.
    If you are an artist that uses a camera to create your art have fun, and composite away.

  15. It’s very rare that I disagree with you Rob, but you’re on your own with this one.

    The answer is – Editorial doesn’t get faked, Commercial does – Fine Art eludes me anyway, so no opinion.

    However, Publishers sold their souls to advertisers years ago, so I don’t see what the fuss is about – it’s all lies. Just about everything we read, see or hear in media has a point of view that has been bought and paid for by someone and their interests.

    Next you’ll start believing in “honest politicians”.

  16. This topic is a tad long in the tooth anyway. I’d almost rather discuss film vs digital at this point.

    Photos have always been manipulated. Photos have always lied. Police yourselves.

  17. Manipulated content is all this should topic involve. The rest is just noise from the crowd.

    Fidelity to the scene or event is all that is required. If an editor cannot trust a photographer to do that, get one who will. Period!

  18. I’d like to see a “fakeometer”, some kind of number affixed to an image that gave some wild ballpark measure of how fake it is. A raytraced image would be at the top of the scale, and a RAW or film scan would be at the bottom.

    It should be general. No 7.2, no shades of gray (heh), just the disclaimer that this image is about a 3 on the fakeometer. Maybe the model had a zit, maybe her skin isn’t quite so rosy, maybe the shadow on the lower left was a little dark, but yeah, those are her eyes and lips at the proportions the lens caught them.

  19. I agree that news media organizations should lay out more clear guidelines regarding the use of software to manipulate images. The current standards of NPPA and the NY Times still lack clarity (no pun intended) when it comes to how far images can be pushed. It would be nice too if there were some kind of uniform standard they all could agree to. That way the Seattle Times would adhere to the same rules as World Press Photo, as Time Magazine and all the rest.

    The problem I have with the article, Rob, is that it seems to address photography beyond just the journalism community. I’m not sure if that was your intention, so correct me if I’m wrong.

    I’ve never thought of Art Wolfe as a photojournalist. If he calls himself an artist and isn’t selling “fakes” to news publications then I don’t care if he’s cranking up saturation and curves in photoshop. That’s his prerogative as an artist to do so. Now, if he’s shooting something for Nat Geo then it should adhere to the journalistic standards the public deserves.

    Broad limitations on the tools every photographer has available to them would be unconstitutional, destroying many of the freedoms journalism stands to protect.

    A big problem I see nowadays is the public’s general ignorance about imagery and what it’s being used for. For instance, anyone SHOULD be able to discern the difference between a fashion advertisement and the picture on the front of a newspaper, but I think many people cannot. You see, I think we should be having a discussion about what imagery is used for rather than how much photoshop is too much. People should be able to tell when one image is trying to sell them something and another is revealing truth about a situation.

    It gets trickier with PR imagery which actually disguises itself as journalism. A good example would be the Official White House photostream on Flickr to which several fine photographers contribute imagery. I like the photography there, as do many others, but I think many would mistake those images for photojournalism. If photojournalism’s fundamental purpose is to reveal truth to its audience, then how can photography designed to promote the best interests of the President’s administration be photojournalism? It can’t, but I think many would be fooled by this.

    “What’s the purpose of an image?” should be an automatic question people ask themselves when confronted with one. Maybe basic visual literacy should be a requirement in high schools.

    Just some thoughts.

  20. How about this: if it is editorial then you limit yourself to burning, dodging, and color correction.

    Hell on my first NGS assignment, my illustrations editor gave me grief for using a polarizing filter on a 400mm lens to darken a sky.

    Editorial you have to adhere to the truth. No other way.

    If it is illustration or advertising, it is fine to make changes or retouch.

    For magazine work: what is so wrong with NOT manipulating the image, with telling the truth as it happened? Are people so tied up in the “production” of the image and of photoshopping everything to death in an attempt to make the image perfect that in the process you lose any resemblance to reality.

    I bet you half or more of the people reading this forum could not properly expose a roll of Kodachrome and get it right. Do you know how to use a hand-held meter? Do you really know how to judge and interpret a scene so that you have a know exactly how it is going to look without chimping? If all you have ever shot is digital, of course you think everything is up for grabs and it is ok to make a few changes, clone something over this or that, change the smile or liquify a face a bit.

    What the hell ever happened to the craft of photography?

    Editorial is NOT ADVERTISING. Even though advertisers are trying to push content, a story is a story, not product placement and not the place to change out skies, add a zebra to landscape or clean-up a streetscape.

  21. “When people see an amazing photograph for the first time they usually ask, “is it real?” The answer should be yes.”

    That is such a good point. People do ask exactly that.

  22. It’s interesting to watch somebody in a gallery or museum first approach a photo-realistic painting they’ve never seen. They stare at it, get close, kind of squint and then inevitably the first thing they ask is, “is this a painting or a photo?” Why do they care? Regardless of its pedigree, it’s obviously art, not journalism. They care because they view and react to the two media very differently. And this gets to what I read as one of the main points of this article, which is more or less being ignored in the comments: photography creates expectations in the viewer (whether or not it’s in a journalistic context) that there is a connection with reality – that you can look at a photo and say, ‘this REALLY happened.’ Sometimes the scene is so removed from our everyday life that we are astounded – like blue whales swimming, or people literally wasting away from starvation, or war. Sometimes it’s just a little detail that connects us to the scene – Roland Barthes’ punctum. When artists take works and presents them as photographs they are depending on the viewer to connect with the work as if what’s in the frame is what was before the camera. If Ed Freeman were a photorealistic painter and presented his images exactly as they are but as paintings, the viewer would be very impressed with his technical skills and that’s probably all, but by presenting them as photographs the viewer looks in astonishment at the world before them, that these things happen and this man captured it. And it’s a deception, the success of which depends on the attitude of the audience toward photography.

    I hate to be basically paraphrasing the article everyone here just read, but I am really surprised that the comments are all latching on to the distinction between how we label and use photography and missing the deeper problem that effects the entire medium.

    For instance in answer to BCD’s question, “what is so wrong with NOT manipulating the image, with telling the truth as it happened? ” The answer is that they can’t find a marketplace among the manipulated ones, not in galleries, not in magazines, not even on Flickr. Go out and take some real photos of surfers and put them on the desk of an editor next to Ed Freeman’s. Freeman’s gets picked up — the truth as it happened is just not exciting as fiction.

    The people ready to cast all not-journalistic photography into the same bucket other artistic media should stop and ask why photography has become so ubiquitous. Why would we rather see photos from a court scene rather than the sketch artist’s work? Why is painting of underwater life not as fascinating as a photo? Why do advertisers use photos to manipulate our desires instead of drawings? Photography is different than art and those differences are the reason it is so powerful. As the ease of manipulation erodes those differences, we lose so much makes photographs interesting.

  23. I like the thought of entering a new age of photography with both fiction and non-fiction. Certainly credible news organizations like The Times need to be careful to keep their photo credibility, however it would be a shame if photog’s weren’t able to enhance their images. I think of painting skies blue along the same lines of using a vivid film stock instead of a neutral stock. We may begin to see more of this happening in the camera before the data is written to the file if we don’t allow them some freedom’s. Additionally, law enforcement uses some software to prove the legitimacy of the unaltered images they use in court of crime scene’s and such. I forget the name of the software.

    -Michael Patrick O’Leary [fiction-photographer]

  24. Usually there are two religions about this topic.

    Well I believe that photography is not reality and that photo manipulation is not bad… BUT used in editorial photography photo manipulation could be dangerous becausea lot of people still believe that photography = reality… So it’s important to use it with warning.

  25. So on the same day that you ask if photo manipulation is bad for photography, I went to the Avedon show at ICP and given the number of his montages that were featured in the exhibit….

    I hafta ask…is this bad for photography? I mean, it’s not ‘real’ and it’s totally manipulated……

    It’s already been pointed out, but I’m so over this subject. I have a problem if you’re removing the third guy to the left of Stalin, or if you retouch a pair of ugly-ass shoes onto OJ’s feet, but for all the rest I say have at it and Photoshop away!


  26. Great post Rob, and i think you know which side of this debate i fall on. Much as i admire the beautiful visual quality to ed freeman’s surfing images, composite work such as this, is clearly photo- illustration in my mind. I was in New York this past week, and after having read your post, i started to notice the constant scene of tourists taking pictures of the Empire State Building. Why? Other than for their own personal collection, i think people do this to show as evidence to their friends back home “hey, look where i was!” Photography at it’s core has an integrity intrinsically linked to the ‘truth’. That is why it’s such a powerful and TRUSTED media. We can create photoshopped composite images, but lets call them what they are from the outset; photo- illustrations, whilst maintaining the integrity of original photography at the same time. I personally believe respected bodies such as PDN really dropped the ball earlier this year by making Ed Freeman’s images a marquee piece for their annual, while neglecting to label them as such, or judge them in a specifically separate category. I think PDN has an obligation to take a lead role in this discussion.

    • @rob g, I think PDN has an obligation to take a lead role in this discussion.

      PDN’s lead role is promoting products featured within PDN and/or raving about their flavor of the month?

      I would not look to PDN for any sort of leadership or guidance.

  27. photoshopped work is fine, just label it as that, in other words if Ed Freeman’s and others photos are a “lie” in the sense that the scene is not as they saw it, just call them photo-illustrations and move on…its not that big a deal and the public will catch up when they repeatedly see the words photo-illustration underneath what they thought was a “photograph”…eventually realizing that all that appears to be an image is not necessarily the scene as is was before the camera…its up to the photographers to be honest in calling it like it is – a photograph or a photo-illustration (or whatever terms we want to create to mean one without manipulation and one with manipulation)

    so perhaps we have to quit demonizing those who manipulate images and encourage them to just tell us so

    I personally want to see images that are “real” or as true to the scene as they can be but I have no problem with manipulation as long as you tell me it is

    when I shoot assignments I submit images that are of the scene – they look like what I saw – and if the client, editorial or otherwise – wants to manipulate them so be it, I hate sitting on my ass in front of the computer and would rather be “out there” photographing anyway

  28. […] brought this all back for me was an interesting article by Rob Haggart “Is Photo Manipulation Bad for Photography”. Haggart says that people believe photos never lie and in manipulating them we are abusing this […]

  29. It looks as if many of the fans here,that adhere to post production manipulation need to classify their work differently.This way consumers and artist will not be confused with their purist brethren.I believe this is Rob”s point.
    A new class for these photographer painters who are enhancing-changing-adding-deleting-etc,,,Should be “PHOTO-PAINTERS”.They are something other than photographers,yet fall short of being painters.
    Photo-Painters are neither male,or female.Asexual in creativity.They swing both ways when needed.
    Remember the Hippies?How about the Yuppies?But,who were the ones between the two?They are a lost group and not to be remembered.Tweeners, always are.
    Well,the “Photo-Painters”, would be the Tweeners of our era.Their glory and success will always be associated with a group of software photoshop techies who impregnated these tweenie photographers with little weenie light that they could not find for themselves.
    Now,lets not forget that the “Tweener Photo-Painter” has nothing to be ashamed of.They should be proud of their shared work.After all,when was the last time you found a group of 50 something odd CS4 PS personel software guru”s adopting frustrated field photographers?
    One other note.I would beg to see Mr.Feldman”s,Bloom,Art Wolfie,Peter Lik”s disclosures of how he created his “Photo-Paintings”.You say,”Disclosures?”Yes!They are required for any fine art photograph.Why?Because,history is replete with tweeners that just don”t quite belong and need policing.
    Please remember,sharing is nice!

  30. Photography is an art and art as a whole does not display reality. Photographers are not really accountable for the public’s belief but they must be responsible enough to justify it.

  31. I believe that it matters more on how the photo (or photo manipulation) is presented.

    If you use it the intention of representing truth then it becomes nothing more than propaganda.
    If the purpose is to illustrate (concept) an idea without the intention of presenting truth (reality) then it is a creative expression or interpretation.
    What needs to be asked is…Is the intent reality or concept? Then at what point should we stop correcting reality? Does it stop at smoothing skin tone or should it stop at making a figure more trim?

    Either way it is a personal question that each Photographer, Art Director, Art Buyer or Retoucher must ask them self. At what point do we stop at in presenting truth.
    -sorry to wax philosophically

  32. I had to chuckle when I read this piece as it reflects the same arguments made during the 1940’s, ’50’s and ’60’s. I started about then and quickly found that modifying the black and white negative or photo was very common indeed. Although it wasn’t discussed openly, most photographers simply did whatever was necessary to produce the picture needed. This was mostly for newspapers but a lot for magazines, too. Nothing has changed and, of course, nothing will change just because another generation has discovered this practice. I’m of the modify-it school and my daughter in Minnesota is of the don’t-modify-anything crowd. If the photo shows a politician or celebrity with a tree branch in the background appearing to go up his or her nose it should be left that way, she would say. I would rather present people at their best. Just my six cents (sixth sense) worth.

  33. i love these “no right answer” discussions.
    i do sort of live under a rock so it may be common knowledge, but i heard a public radio interview with a guy that has developed software that sniffs out manipulated photographs. i wonder if that is what the future holds for those submitting work for publication?

    all the distraction and diversion creates the un-focus for people like me, nobody’s out in nowhere-ville to seek our niches to devour.

    everyone has a motive. no inventor is successful without first a motive for creation. in the mid 80’s my photo proff humiliated me in front of a class when i submitted a lousy unlit protrait for critique. he demanded that i write in my journal 10 times. “photography is about light.”
    photography is about light. photography is about light photography is about lightphotographyisaboutlight….

    25 or so years later i can sometimes be heard, as i contemplate a landscape, or portrait…saying out loud….”photography is about light.”

  34. Coming in a bit late here…

    Good piece, Rob. Thank you.

    Digital is NOT photography!
    Digital has evolved into it’s own separate medium. Digital may use lenses and cameras similar to photography, but just as cinema evolved out of photography digital too is now it’s own medium.

    On an emotional level, the psyche will often reject changes in culture/technology if they develop too fast. I don’t believe the popularity of reality based (simple, seemingly unsophisticated) images, art, culture is coincidental to the development of digital. More the (pendulum) swing of the psyche.

  35. We all know nothing is real, reality is built upon perception. Photography or art in general is simply a means of communicating existence. Once a thought leaves the mind it becomes objectified, so in a way to create anything is in fact a form of manipulating it. The truth is there is nothing pure, everything is slanted or biased to a certain degree. It’s just human nature. The art of being able to understand creation or the critique as it is commonly referred to is the only way to subjectively debate the boundaries of acceptability in the art world. The same applies for the world of photography and journalism, it can be applied to many other fields and applications as well. Knowing is one thing, understanding is another. Excellent article Rob, thank you. More like this in the future?

  36. My feeling is that altering the content of a photo would destroy the whole excitement and attraction that I have to photography in the first place. And since I only shoot people, I would feel very rude altering their image.

  37. I also think it’s important to reject the idea that all photographic controls distort reality. In a sense, it’s true, but there is a huge and fundamental difference between aspects of a photo that are variable and subjective by the nature of the medium, and those that are actual distortions of a photo’s content. Like, adjusting contrast to make a pleasing print, versus cloning out a pimple. i would never do the latter.

  38. Agree with Christopher-
    Think there is a difference in pushing contrast and existing colors and adding colors and manipulating the image with colors and objects not initially present.
    In traditional photography the film type, printing,lighting ect will change the images final look and that will belong to the eye of the beholder. Take James Natchwey in war photographer as he pushes the contrast on his serbian photographs in the film War Photographer .. the photography is real and present but the angle and choice of printing and contrast is his personal vision-who is to judge as it certainly was not as dark as it was when he shot it…but what is clear he would not add something that was not there.

    Reg raw images the choice of lens, camera, aperture ect will create a different raw so again real vs not real is not relevant until foreign colors/objects are added.

    So i support the ability to push the contrast and present color ( wether during shooting or post ( for final print or digital output )as long as the actually subject is not manipulated and then called real.

    Photography is a means of expression and storytelling…question is where the story is real or not… not the depth of present color or contrast .

  39. […] and purveyour of the fine blog A Photo Editor, always tries to mess with my brain. He wrote a short article for the Photography Issue of Outside magazine that just came out – and he really, really makes one think about truth in photography. The […]

  40. Who’s to say that the images he (ed freeman) makes isn’t his truth. This is how he sees the world in front of him. He is simply showing us-who don’t see things the way he does-his reality. Hence the saying “the artist’s vision.”It isn’t a lie. To him surfing might look as magical and unreal as we see in his images. Sometimes its best we set aside our logic/critical thinking, take a step back, and let our imagination flow. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Albert Einstein

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