Dirty Tricks or Photographic Arts?

Lady Kristin

Lady Kristen – Copyright 2013 – Paul Vreeland

“… there is no such thing as an absolutely unmanipulated photograph.” 

Mia Fineman – curator Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A companion piece to “No News from Poems: Story Truth and Happening Truth”

I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time and laziness is not the only reason why it’s been delayed. As a “slog” (slow blog), I can say that, until Lionel Stevenson’s recent book launch at the Confederation Centre of the Arts Gallery, it wasn’t ready to be written.  It had begun weeks ago as a post about photography having a bad reputation as a conveyer of truth, and how things go downhill rapidly when we consider what happens after the camera shutter has been pressed.

Lionel Stevenson is a distinguished and well-known Prince Edward Island photographer. A retrospective, “career survey” of his work, “Fifty Years of Photographs,” had been on exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts since last October until this month. I took in the exhibit several times and loved what I saw. The prints were gallery large and with few exceptions were black and whites. Stevenson’s subjects ranged from portraits of Islanders, to barns, wintry street scenes, and huge erratics—boulders deposited by glaciers at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. My curiosity was piqued by the brief curator’s note, “Stevenson’s contention is that subject matter is largely secondary…” I had learned that if I wanted to make beautiful photographs I had to be alert to beautiful subjects. I had learned that beautiful photography was dependent upon beautiful subjects. In other words, the subject was everything. Well, almost. The application of artistic skill is supposedly responsible for the rest.  evans_wife3

This posting is, once again, about art and truth. In “No News from Poems” I wrote about the truth that fiction would offer relative to the truth that creative non-fiction asserts. That discussion has a parallel arising from a confusion of purposes served by photography. Is it the duty of the photography to record and document the truth as does creative non-fiction? Or is it the function of the photographic arts, like that of the short story, to probe the nuances of more subjective truths? (And I would agree with those who say the function of fiction is simply to entertain. But I would ask, is it possible to be entertained without an engagement that begs the reader to resonate in some way with character—a resonance descriptive of our human condition—descriptive of a truth?)  Both discussions are founded on what is “seen” on a purely materialistic plane and the meaning of “seeing” or “envisioning” on a more spiritual level.

Lionel Stevenson is a master printer. He worked as an assistant to American documentary photographer Berenice Abbott.  It is important to note here that Abbott, was of the pure or straight photography school.  Popularized in the 1930s by photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Walker Evans, straight photography held to a realism and objectivity that renounced methods of image manipulation. It was distinguished by high contrast, sharp focused, uncropped prints—images that were “representational”—creative non-fiction, if you will. (Right: Straight Photograph — Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama, by Walker Evans/Library of Congress)

Straight photography was a refutation of the Pictorialist Movement of the late 19th century in which images were manipulated and processed to look like paintings. In fact a number of painters including Manet, Cézanne and Gauguin used photography in their work. The pictorialists are to photography what fiction writers are to literature. Steichen The Flatiron

“Work straight,” a critic is reported to have said. Produce photographs, not imitation fine art. And the purists renounced soft focus, darkroom trickery, drawing or scratching on negatives, and gum printing.

Whether an image is bathed in chemicals in a darkroom or is digitally enhanced by software, the term we use is “post-processing”– “post” because it refers to all the work, all the processing that is done after the shooting, after the camera has done its job. (Right: Pictorialist, The Flatiron Building by Edward Steichen who trained as a painter. The photo was taken in 1904 before the advent of colour film. Here Steichen achieved an artistic moodiness through a process that suspended pigments in gum bichromate over platinum prints.)

Why is this important to me? In Stevenson’s work I find a hint of what it is that I try to accomplish. Perhaps by understanding him I can come to a better understanding of what I am about. You see I spend a lot of time post-processing images and the debate for me is about the manipulation of the image. I found it difficult to reconcile the notion that “the subject is secondary” to a straight documentary photographer; I didn’t understand how realism and objectivity can be reconciled with a concentration on the processing of the image after the shutter has been pressed.  There is something akin to a moral dilemma here, because an adherence to the lofty goals of realism and objectivity has given post-processing a bad wrap. Post-processing is, shockingly, a dirty word in the vocabulary of many accomplished photographers – those who should know better, as well as the neophytes who promote an ignorance that “the camera doesn’t lie,” – a fallacy dating back to 1895.

He looked up from the proof at me and said:
‘Good Lord! Do I look like that?’
‘The camera doesn’t lie about such things’, I replied. (1)

This is not another article on the use of the photographic arts to deceive. There’s a host of worthy articles out there such as the art review by Ken Johnson in The New York Times, “Their Cheating Art: Reality and Illusion—‘Faking It at the Met, a Photography Exhibition” (2). Or, as one post title read: “Photos don’t lie, but liars use photographs to deceive…”(3)  We live in a culture of photographic deception. Just take a look at the tabloids when you’re standing in line at the grocery checkout—the celebrity victims of extreme weight gains, losses and aging.   Think about it. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word photoshopped? This aspect of the photographic arts has been deemed “evil” and a “sin.”

The preeminent tool for contemporary post-processing is Adobe Corporation’s software known as Photoshop, and when an image is said to have been “photoshopped”, we often mean that it has been stripped of its veracity and journalistic integrity. To ‘photoshop’ is to lie. I’m not the only one concerned about this. David Peterson posted an article questioning, “Is Post-Processing Evil?” Peterson writes:

Artists can be a self-righteous bunch. There will always be the purists, those who don’t even own a digital camera, and then there are those who recognize the importance of Photoshop and other tools. When it comes to the ethics of photography, post-processing tends to get the bad end of the stick because it involves the direct manipulation of a photo after it’s been taken. There is always the opportunity to cover up bad photography with computer-generated effects, so some consider it to be evil. But is it?

I’d like to offer a couple of points in defense of post-processing, not because it needs defending, but because I need to understand what I am doing.

First, the lie begins in the camera. There is no perfect lens, and the truth of what we see is distorted by whatever piece of glass is in front of the sensor or film. The truth is also altered by the choices the photographer makes before the shot is taken—choices of aperture, exposure, shutter speed and ISO. As the well-known American photographer Edward Steichen said, “Every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible.” And who in their right mind believes in a realism that witnessed the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima, or the testing of the atomic bomb at Bikini atoll in black and white. That reality is limited to those who are colour blind.

Secondly, post-processing can help render an image to more closely replicate what the human eye sees. A case in point is a trendy technique called HDR which stands for high dynamic range.  The human eye is at least ten times more sensitive to luminosity or a range of brightness than is the camera. Most of us have taken a photo in which the sky offers up its true brilliance but our subject, Uncle Wally or whoever, turns out to be a dark silhouette. Or maybe Uncle Wally is properly rendered and the sky is a blinding white. To compensate for the technological shortcomings of the camera, some photographers take multiple photos of their subjects, each at a different exposure setting.  Through post-processing the different exposures can be layered to create an image that better approximates the human eye. Unfortunately HDR is contributing to the notion that post-processing is evil because the technique is popularly abused. The internet is awash in HDR images so blatantly over the top that no human eye could have ever perceived the subject so. Peter West Carey, in a post titled “Knowing My Limits – Why I Don’t Do HDR” writes:

It’s not that HDR is totally evil (just mostly) and should be done away with. I know it’s a bit of a craze and newfangled thing right now. Just stop taking it too far and stop using it in place of proper exposure and accepting the limits of the scene in front of you. There is so much great stuff to learn about proper exposure that the HDR gadget can just sit at the back of the drawer like the outgrown toy it has become. Care to differ? Please do! Just keep it civil.(4)

I would agree. If you can tell that an image is HDR, then you’ve crossed the line. You want the image to stand out, not the technique that produced it. I can hear the critics of the pictorialists saying that. By the way, the photo above, Lady Kristen, is an HDR image.

Camera technology has advanced to the point where we now need to ask is HDR a post-processing technique. What if the HDR processing is done in camera? Several digital cameras now offer that feature. And apps for iPhones and other smart phone cameras enable users to snap HDR photos.

But hold on. What if the photographer doesn’t want to render a scene as his human eye “sees” it? What if he wants to render it as his imagination “sees” it? What if he is less concerned with capturing an image than in creating a new one? What if he wants to document his vision? What if the harsh, garish reality of what the photographer envisioned is best rendered by an over-the-top and in-your-face HDR treatment? I’ve gone too far, but I want to make a point about the seeming difference between documenting a truth and creating a new one. Which brings me back to Lionel Stevenson who said,

Although the referent is important in my photographs, and it is the stimulus to pick up the camera, for me the photograph is more important than its referent. [It] is essentially about what pleases my eye. I want to make beautiful sheets of paper.”(5)

Mind you, Stevenson is a straight photographer. He’s a documentary photographer who wants “his prints to be as true as possible to what he originally saw.”(6). But, for Stevenson, it’s not about snapping pictures, rather, it is the much slower matter of controlling the process to enable the aesthetic object to emerge.

At the recent launch of his book I shared my questions with him. I pressed Stevenson about being a straight photographer and post-processing.

“Yes,” he said, “When you go out, you remember what you see, you remember the grayscales.”

“But,” I countered. “Is it a matter of your physical eye or is it something greater? Is it a vision?”

He nodded and drew my attention to a quote by Berenice Abbott in the book I had just purchased.

The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objective is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework—that to me is the art of photography.(6)

Is there a difference between a recorded documented truth and one created by art? Maybe. If we limit our understanding to one perspective and accept all others as “wrong”. And maybe not. Maybe it’s not a question of one or the other, but a matter of one and the same. Here, for me, is the reconciliation. For photographers like Stevenson, print-making and post-processing are the arts that bridge the gap across a false dichotomy to create a new documentary truth seen someplace between the eye, the mind, and the soul. Simply seen, but not so simply rendered.

Am I a straight photographer or a pictorialist? I don’t know yet. But I do know that this is creative non-fiction.


The Sandusky Register, Sandusky, Ohio, February 1895 (see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/camera-cannot-lie.html)

2 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/12/arts/design/faking-it-at-the-met-a-photography-exhibition.html?

3 http://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/photos-dont-lie-but-liars-use-photographs-to-decieve/

4 http://digital-photography-school.com/knowing-my-limits-%e2%80%93-why-i-dont-do-hdr#ixzz2UV53P6Wv

5 Lionel F. Stevenson – Fifty Years of Photographs / Cinquante ans de photographie (1962-2012), Pan Wendt, Acorn Press, Charlottetown, 2013, p. 9.

6 Ibid, p. 10.

7 Ibid, p. 13.