The Philosophy of Photography

Photomontage - Composite of 16 different photo...
Photomontage – Composite of 16 different photos which have been digitally manipulated to give the impression that it is a real landscape. Software used: Adobe Photoshop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my Facebook friends (a photographer) commented on another photographer’s picture, so I got to see the photo too. It was a stunning photograph but an interesting thing for me was the photographer’s description of the ‘post-processing’ that the picture had been subjected to. It was ‘soft’ because of the rain on the lens, but among things the photographer had done to the picture was to alter the contrast, and heightened the colour in the swathes of grass.

Now, I have no issue with post-processing and the photo in question was stunning, but it does raise the question as to at what point a processed photograph becomes less a photograph and more of a different type of work of art! Some people would not consider such a work a proper photograph. One wonders where they would draw the line. Would they, for example, allow that a cropped photo would be, in some sense, OK?

Interestingly (well, I think that it is interesting!) the photographers do it to themselves, too. Apparently a wild life photo was ruled out of a competition because it chopped off the heron’s toes. I’d be pleased to get any sort of a decent photograph of a heron.

A Great Blue Heron flying with nesting materia...
A Great Blue Heron flying with nesting material in Illinois, USA. There is a colony of about 20 heron nests in trees nearby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Photos can be considered dubious for other reasons too. Brian Brake’s photo of a girl enjoying the onset of the monsoon was reputedly created with the aid of a watering can. It’s still a great photograph and does convey meaning and emotion.

Monsoon Girl
Monsoon Girl (Photo credit: colonos) Not the famous Brake picture however.

One of the factors that has perhaps brought such matters to the fore, at least for those who muse about philosophical matters, I suppose, is the digital revolution in photography. Post-processing used to be confined to the dark room, involving the use of dubious chemicals and often highly technical equipment. These days post-processing can be done on a computer, in comfort, with powerful helper programs such as Photoshop, and no chemicals, except possibly a quantity of water tainted with alcohol. And even more important perhaps, mistakes don’t matter so much. If the picture doesn’t turn out OK, hit the delete button and try again starting with the original image.

Photoshop Cow
Photoshop Cow (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

There are (at least) two other categories of photographs that are considered dubious. Photographs taken of glamourous people for glossy magazines are often highly touched up in post-processing, sometimes to an extraordinary extent. The pop singer Beyoncé was reportedly annoyed that her body shape was altered in a clothing commercial in which she starred (as reported by the Huffington Post anyway). The ethics of such ‘photoshopping’ as the above, and the removal of perceived blemishes, emphasis of facial symmetry, feature highlighting and so on are indeed dubious, and can give rise to unrealistic expectations in susceptible people. Against that, most people at least acknowledge that this manipulation of photographs is common, though few suspect the extent to which it goes on.

Popular Beauty Retouch
Popular Beauty Retouch (Photo credit: Tucia)

Secondly, and more troubling, it appears that news related photographs (and video materials) are often ‘doctored’. This could be used to promote a particular philosophy or point of view. For instance the North Korean regime appears to use photo manipulation to overstate its military capabilities. While this is amusing, one can’t help but wonder if our more benevolent regimes also use such alteration and exaggeration extensively. It is known that they do, on occasion, stretch the truth. For example, while TV was showing the successful recovery of the capsule ‘Liberty Bell’ of the fourth Mercury astronautical  test mission from the sea, the capsule was actually sinking in 15,000 feet of water.

Grissom Climbs into Liberty Bell 7
Grissom Climbs into Liberty Bell 7 (Photo credit: NASA on The Commons)

I’m not going to argue one way or the other. No doubt those who alter photographs as an attempt to make them better photographs in whatever way you use the word ‘better’ have the best of intentions. However there is a difference between the person who modifies his photograph to, say, enhance the colour of the grass and the person who manipulates a photograph of a political figure or a model selling hair treatments, or yet the person who modifies a photo for propaganda purposes. But they can all be considered art, even the propaganda. I’m thinking of Leni Riefenstahl, whose propaganda films are certainly art.

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2004-0020, Polen, Truppe...
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2004-0020, Polen, Truppenbesuch von Leni Riefenstahl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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