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Author Topic: Truth in photography  (Read 5820 times)

Hillsilly

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Truth in photography
« on: February 02, 2012, 01:30:39 AM »
I've been following the “Debunk this Peter Lik picture…PLEASE!!!” thread closely for the last few days, and I'm surprised at the amount of interest it has generated.  I started following it because I like to reverse engineer things to work out how they were done.  Otherwise, I’m not too concerned if it is actually a combination of multiple images with significant post production.  If it is art, I feel that it should be able to stand on its own and the “behind the scenes” activities are largely irrelevant.  But many people think differently.

So, I'm curious.  With photography in general….

Do you feel genuinely upset and angry when a photographer portrays a photo as something it’s not?  If so, why does this get you so worked up? 

If a photo is actually a combination of several photos, but the photographer implies that it is a single, unaltered image, do you consider this unethical?

Do you think photo buyers really care about the effort that went into producing an image?  If so, do you feel that an image with less manipulation is of greater substance than an image with more manipulation?  Or is this irrelevant provided that the photographer doesn’t mislead anyone? 

Tell me your thoughts. 
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Truth in photography
« on: February 02, 2012, 01:30:39 AM »

AprilForever

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #1 on: February 02, 2012, 02:25:35 AM »
As far as ethical, any amount of editing or compositing of any image is ethical. What is unethical is presenting an image as something it is not: for example, stating that an image is a single shot when it is in fact a composition. This is unethical because it is lying.

There are no special pure points anyone gets for having images which are not altered in any way. No one gets points for straight-out-of-camera. Even back in the film days, people did all kids of editing. I've seen old pictures where people who drifted to the wrong side of things (especially popular with Hitler!) disappeared from the pictures (and real life, too!). They had dodging, burning, contrast altering methods, and even ways to clone people or items out of pictures (with enough work...).

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squarebox

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #2 on: February 02, 2012, 02:26:52 AM »
I'm just starting out so my opinion will probably change, but i'm of the mindset that there are two distinct groups of professionals photographers and photo manipulation.  I can appreciate both of them for what they bring to the table, but I do get upset when a friend of mine points out that a picture i thought was real has been heavily post-processed.  It gets me worked up because I think photography should be able capturing those RARE moments in lighting and shadows when everything comes together to show to other people.  Going in after the fact and changing stuff I see as cheating unless they mentioned they photoshopped the image.

Personally, I'm still learning about photography and taking pictures, but I have zero interest in post-processing outside cropping and removing lens distortions.  But like i said before, I'm no pro, and that might be the difference a pro and amateur.
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Positron

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #3 on: February 02, 2012, 02:27:15 AM »

If a photo is actually a combination of several photos, but the photographer implies that it is a single, unaltered image, do you consider this unethical?


For me, this is the main issue. Mind you, he never explicitly says that the image is one exposure (in fact, I believe someone dug up a press release where he outright says it's two*), but the corny story behind it strongly implies that it was somehow a "magical instant" when that instant couldn't have existed. Mind you, the moon could have by itself (as could the silhouetted tree), and that alone is actually, in my opinion, the most striking and memorable part of the image.

Now, don't get me wrong. Peter Lik does some nice work, and as a fine art photographer, in my opinion he has every right to make images for the sake of art rather than documentation. It's the attempt to make the image seem like something it isn't that is bothersome.

By the way, I've been to his galleries in Las Vegas, and I have to say, more than the images themselves, the presentation is jaw-dropping. I know quite a few people with enough talent to take pictures as good or better than the ones he takes, but I know absolutely nobody who can beat his marketing. And at the end of the day, all that matters in business is the ability to get a sale.

So in short, as a fine art photographer, I believe compositing images is 100% ethical. Misleading the potential buyer into believing it was a single exposure is not.

*P.S. He uses the phrase "double exposure", which refers to something completely different. This image is a flat out composite.

gmrza

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #4 on: February 02, 2012, 04:21:03 AM »
I'm just starting out so my opinion will probably change, but i'm of the mindset that there are two distinct groups of professionals photographers and photo manipulation.  I can appreciate both of them for what they bring to the table, but I do get upset when a friend of mine points out that a picture i thought was real has been heavily post-processed.  It gets me worked up because I think photography should be able capturing those RARE moments in lighting and shadows when everything comes together to show to other people.  Going in after the fact and changing stuff I see as cheating unless they mentioned they photoshopped the image.

Personally, I'm still learning about photography and taking pictures, but I have zero interest in post-processing outside cropping and removing lens distortions.  But like i said before, I'm no pro, and that might be the difference a pro and amateur.

Isn't one point of view to say that image manipulation, to some degree or another, starts "in the camera" - Isn't that what is happening through the use of filters and lighting?  - That "empty" town square, shot with a 10 stop ND filter.  Or what about all the Cokin "creative" filters that some people used to collect in their film days.  Does it matter whether a filter is applied in camera or in post - isn't the intent the same?  (The result may well be different.)
Could one not argue that short lighting is a form of manipulation of a portrait (in order to make the result more flattering)?
Isn't David Hobby's levitating light bulb (http://strobist.blogspot.com.au/2006/06/developing-idea-part-2-compact.html) an example of mainly manipulating an image in camera?  (I say "mainly" because he did clone out the blobs of solder visible at the bottom of the light bulb.)

Of course all HDR photography involves some form of manipulation - even if that is done in the camera.

Ultimately, it is about degrees.  There is a point, probably, which differs according to taste, where manipulation becomes too much.

The discussion of passing an image off as something it isn't is, of course, a totally different one.

There is one case, where I can think of a clear cut reason to object to manipulation of images (such as removing people from an image or combining images) - that is in photojournalism, where the images presented are supposed to be a representation of the truth.  Of course, there is much a PJ can do to manipulate context, without in any way manipulating an image!
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NotABunny

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #5 on: February 02, 2012, 04:21:51 AM »
Do you feel genuinely upset and angry when a photographer portrays a photo as something it’s not?  If so, why does this get you so worked up?

Pretty phylosophical what I've written, but it's the full explanation that I can give as a response to your challenge.


This issue is bigger than how one portrays a photograph, it's about one's own personality.

It depends on what type of mind one wants to have. I prefer a sane mind, as in a mind capable of distinguishing truths from lies, as in a mind who resists (accepting) lies because they destabilize the sanity of the mind, the direction in which the mind goes, the type of mind that nature gave me.

One might argue that if an individual believes that lies are true, the individual is perfectly happy. I call this individual brain-washed, as in someone with a weak mind, one whose mind is incapable to withstand the pressure of separating every little thing he / she is being told (to accept as truth), one who has submitted to the control of others.

And why is the individual being told lies? Because someone wants to control him / her in order to gain money, sexual partners, power, subjects who bow to someone's greatness.

If a lie is a treated as truth then there is no difference between truth and lie. How would a computer work if it could not distinguish 0 from 1? How would math work if there were no way to distinguish 1 from 2?

I abhor lies, but this doesn't mean that they all have the same effect on me. Some I am willing to let go because they make a story, as in not intended to surreptitiously replace My Reality. Some I let go because if I were to let them affect my life by picking every one of them apart and exposing it to others, they would have a negative effect on my time, energy, mind and body.


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« Last Edit: February 02, 2012, 04:50:39 AM by NotABunny »

NotABunny

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #6 on: February 02, 2012, 04:22:00 AM »
Specifically on that photo: That guy is trying make money from that photo. For that he may be lying (I have no idea how he made the photograph - I can see how being made of several exposures may be the whole truth), and he also makes a story (which is quite nice).

I don't particularly care for it because it feels stitched up. The moon is too bright and with too sharp margins compared to the rest. The lack of clouds in front of it also participates to the feeling.

I do however bow in admiration to some other shots of him. (The frame filling tree for one because it gives a sense of a fairy tale.)
« Last Edit: February 02, 2012, 04:29:11 AM by NotABunny »

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #6 on: February 02, 2012, 04:22:00 AM »

NotABunny

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #7 on: February 02, 2012, 04:47:44 AM »
I'm just starting out so my opinion will probably change, but i'm of the mindset that there are two distinct groups of professionals photographers and photo manipulation.

There is no such thing as a pure / real photograph. That is because the lens-sensor-film-camera-display-printer-viewing lighting have significantly different physical characteristics than those of the human eye (on location). In order to show a photo just like the human eye sees a scene, the photo must be altered to fit the viewing environment.

Besides, Reality is usually boring but can be made to look better with some post-processing.
« Last Edit: February 02, 2012, 04:54:42 AM by NotABunny »

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #8 on: February 02, 2012, 04:49:50 AM »
Purism in photography is a misnomer. The only pure photography is done with big white lenses with red rings on them!

Wow!..
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wickidwombat

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #9 on: February 02, 2012, 06:26:09 AM »
An interesting question. Here is my take.

I do feel angry when a photographer misrepresents or lies about a photograph, I find this is usually because they are insecure and protective of their secrets they never want anyone else to be able to reproduce what they did. Many of these people run workshops and such, charge astounding prices but they never truely reveal all the secrets to their spellbound audience they give them enough to keep them on the hook but not enough to get as good as them. Especially when t comes to the post processing tricks they use you will find them very ellusive and cagey.

When I first discovered HDR i was blown away I just couldnt work out how to get those results so i researched it and bought the software and practised it and read everything from trey ratcliff, bought all his books and once i worked out how to get all that out of photomatix i got bored of it and really dislike the photomatix outputs now. However I still hold trey in the absolute highest regard. The guy has first class business and moral ethics. He is totally open about the level of maniplutaion he applies and if you look at his blog he does post normal photos he takes from time to time that arent hdr and he is a tallented photographer. While I no longer like the look of most of his work i Respect him alot, I have hoped he evolves his HDR technique and workflow away from using photomatix because I personally think photomatix really can ruin potentially good images. The guy is down to earth honest and still high on my list of favourite photographers primarily because of his ethics and attitude even though his work no longer does it for me.

It seems to me that there is an alarming trend in digital photography to heavy over saturation and "fine art" seems to be the worst offenders they also seem to be the most prevalent in misrepresenting the truth about the creation of the image. several recent threads have highlighted this to me, that one about the hassleblad competition for instance, this peter lik shinanigans, almost all landscapes wannabe landscapes seem to have heavy amounts of added saturation. I understand the photo needs to pop and grab the viewers attention you dont want it to be bland and uninteresting but that line between acceptable and hideous is very very fine and what makes it harder still is everyones tollerance to this is different.



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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #10 on: February 02, 2012, 06:34:54 AM »
If the Lik picture is indeed the result of digital tinkering (and the consensus seems to be that it is), I'd say that it unambiguously fails any "truth" metric-- though it might still qualify as truthful in artistic or visionary terms.

We have to consider what constitutes "truth," to start-- and that's too big a topic to really give its due. But generally, philosophers and scholars have included some of the following definitions and qualifications:

- For some, the truth of photography stems from its indexicality. That is, the photographic image exists because a real object existed to be photographed. Unlike paintings or words, the image is not representational, not mediated (though this gets sticky) through some arbitrary sign or code. The image is because reality was, more or less. On these grounds, many photographs qualify as truthful-- but the Lik photo does not. It represents a scene that never existed in actual space. This might qualify as artistry or imagination, both of which are valuable. But the indexicality is lost. The image is mediated through an intentionality that overwhelms the photograph's more primal ontology.

- For others, the above definition is interesting but naive. Yes, photographs have some intrinsic meaning. The word "dog" represents the literal members of the canine species because we as a culture assigned this sign. We decided the word would go with the object, but there is no pure linkage, no absolute tie between signifier and antecedent. The picture of a dog, however, is unmistakable. It communicates effortlessly and does not need some arbitrary system of codes to be identifiable as "dog." We don't need to learn to read the image as we do as word-- we know (at least if we've seen dogs before) what we are looking at it.

But this reasoning is limited. The "reality" of a scene can be editorialized, as the photographer's framing, exposure, and even color decisions will bias the image away from some "objective truth" toward some expressive document that is, at best, mediated by a subjectivity. For example, the Russian filmmaker Kuleshov juxtaposed the same shot of a woman alongside footage of soup, footage of girl playing, and footage of a dead body. The different combinations of course produced different results and interpretations from viewers, leading to the conclusion that the photograph's intrinsic truth value is limited and that context dictates much of our reaction. Similarly, a photographer might choose to use a long lens focus on the speaker at a rally. This choice will dynamically separate the speaker from the background, turning him/her into a clear figure against an ostensible sea of blurry, enthusiastic supports. Of course, the number of supports might only be a couple dozen-- but with the tight framing, compressed sense of depth, and razor-thin depth of field, no one will be able to tell. In short, even though the image is ontologically bound to something real, to a real event, it's value as an autonomous image cannot be rightly described as truthful.

At best, such images represent a truthful account of the subjective experience of the photographer. That is, his/her emotions and reactions provoked his/her decisions while taking the picture. In an idealist sense, this makes photographs wonderful truth documents-- testaments to not only the reality of a moment in time but also the experience of an individual caught within it, a documentary about both an event and the documentary's own making. This sense also applies to the act of looking at a photograph. As Roland Barthes said, a photograph is both what is there and what we bring to it. Many of us are keen enough to separate the two and can be somewhat successful in judging a photograph on semi-objective merits-- but there is also a (possibly unconscious) impulse in all of us (or so this theory goes) that renders some images inexplicably impacting and other images unaccountably drab. So, our perception of "truth" in a photograph applies, in this view, to not only the truth actually captured by the photographic apparatus but also to the truth we perceive in the frame (a weird Shrodinger's Cat moment in continental philosophy-- the image is true until you learn that it isn't, etc.).

At worst, this sort of "subjective truth" can be dismissed as an easy alibi for mercenary photographers and marketers. A framing decision might have as much to do with privileging a distorted reality that befits a client--i.e. the way political nominees are photographed at speeches using the tactic I described above. Juxtapositions can also be used to make a photo more marketable in various ways-- an intention that doesn't reconcile well with the "truth of the experience" argument.

In any case, the Lik picture fails all of these standards because the picture was engineered in a laborious, calculated manner after the fact. This approach has no trace of the subjective truth nor the indexical truth mentioned above.

- In many ways, no photography is true. Consider a long exposure shot of a waterfall. In it, you'd see a smooth, cascading flow that exists NOWHERE in reality. Never in history has that image been true. A scene with water that flows like that cannot be found. It did not exists. It was witnessed by no one. Rather, the image amounts to a kind of time travel, pinching and condensing many instants into one. Nearly all exposures do this to a certain extent, so the linkage to reality that has been trumpeted above is necessarily qualified. Long exposures just exaggerate the effect.

Nonetheless, a long exposure shot of a waterfall is still more intimately bound to reality than a painting of a waterfall. Even if it's imperfect, the indexical argument has merit. To explore it, we could look at critic Jean Epstein. He used the term "photogenie" to describe the essence of cinema, and for him, it was the quality of cinematic motion and lensing. That ineffable instant before a smile breaks, or that silence that lingers before a symphony starts-- these transitions, he said, were the essence of early cinema's hypnotic nature, its ability to turn the quotidian into a spectacle. Like many early film theorists, he waxes poetic in a way that probably overstates the point-- but photographic truth has some relation to this idea. Getting "the shot" is something all photographers appreciate. It might be the way the sun reflects across a landscape for a thirty second interval on a certain day once per year. Or it might be the crisp, revealing facial expression that happenstance and a fast shutter speed conspired to capture. It might be angle at which someone turns their head-- close enough to tease an expression but hidden enough to leave us looking for more details. It can be lots of things-- but it's never something easily repeatable. It's a unique instant, a moment in time that stands apart from the surrounding moments as unique in a way we appreciate. Whatever the case, we like these photographs because they crystalize images that are, for the most part, too fleeting. We find these ephemeral instants beguiling, and we are drawn to the chance to study them, to examine the small truths that commonly evade us. A good picture is one that people don't merely respect the technical skill of but rather that people want to look at.

On these grounds, many photographs qualify as truthful. Lik's work, however, does not. Again, there is no relation to reality. If we assimilate all of the above views, we can say that the truth in photography comes from its ability to both memorialize material reality and also from its ability to transcend the limitations that our own senses impose on our existence in that reality. Lik's work doesn't meet these standards.

Any way I cut it, the probable fact that the image was engineered almost certainly denies the picture any credible value as truthful. As a visionary image or a work of photograph art, sure. But a conversation like this is only worth having if we invest importance in the idea that "truth" and other such concepts have barriers of some sort. We use categories and concepts to organize our conscious interpretations of meaning, so if the borders between categories (i.e. that which is truthful vs. that which is affecting), then certain structures of meaning also become precarious. At that point, you either abandon conversations like this and let each person follow his/her own code, or you advance a qualified definition. There might be better definitions than the above out there, but as far as I can see, most meditations on the matter disqualify Lik from "truth."

unfocused

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #11 on: February 02, 2012, 03:26:06 PM »
First off, please DO NOT refer to Mr. Lik's work as "Fine Art."

Mr. Lik is a Brittney Spears or Katy Perry of the photography world. Serving up sugary sweet treats for people who have lots of money, but no substance. He's very successful and some of his work is quite interesting and he is very good at what he does. He is talented and his work is decorative and looks pretty hanging on a wall. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is never going to be fine art.

That has nothing to do with his technique. If you want to see composite printing that is unquestionably fine art, just Google Jerry Uelsmann.

Now, the problem most people seem to have had with this particular work was not that it was a composite. It was that Mr. Lik created a fictional account of how this picture came to be.

Certainly no picture is honest, but that does not mean that photographers should not be honest.

Yes "truth" is a elusive characteristic and all pictures lie. Reducing three dimensions to two, framing a subject, freezing 1/60 of a second out of an infinite number, focusing on a particular component...all of these turn every photography into a lie. So, to some degree, each of us must come to grips with the whole issue of truth in photography.

Some photographers enjoy creating fictions with their cameras and make no pretense that the images ever existed in nature. I am no purist, but generally speaking, I tend to fall into the camp that finds it more rewarding and challenging to try to wrestle some little truth out of the perpetually lying camera. That doesn't preclude post-processing, even heavy doses of post-processing at times. But, I don't usually create entirely fictional images (nothing wrong with it, just not my particular interest at this time).

Composite images (like Uelsmann's) can be "true" at a level that goes beyond the surface image. All straight images "lie." It is just a matter of whether that lie is used to obscure the truth or to highlight it.

But what should be universal is whether or not the photographer is honest.  Uelsmann has always been honest about his photography. Dishonesty is as unforgivable among photographers just as it is among anyone else.

Perhaps Mr. Lik feels his composite image is true to his imagination. That is fine. But, Mr. Lik was clearly not being honest in his story of the picture. And, it is his heavy-handed attempt to deceive everyone about how the picture was created that was offensive.
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thepancakeman

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #12 on: February 02, 2012, 03:35:54 PM »
I have no problem with someone who drives a Ferrari body on a Fiero chasis and engine.  Many people will ooh and aah and let it go--that's fine.  However, if the driver in question tells people it is an actual Ferrari or worse yet tries to sell it as such it's called fraud.  And there's a reason we have laws against that.
« Last Edit: February 02, 2012, 04:03:42 PM by thepancakeman »

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #12 on: February 02, 2012, 03:35:54 PM »

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #13 on: February 02, 2012, 04:23:47 PM »
With all this talk about truth...I wonder how you guys feel about photographers using photoshop, particularly of actress's/model's faces in magazines that has been "altered". Isn't it pretty much the same concept?
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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #14 on: February 02, 2012, 04:33:14 PM »
One of my concerns with these more blatant modifications is that it cheapens the field of photography, and turns it into more of a field for those with the best graphics artists skills. Consumers and viewers of such art may become more jaded and question more and more geniune work from that in which the capture was "cheated" and not necessarily know the difference.  More honest photographers trying to capture the real image and portray the scene as it appeared suffer from this type of abuse. 

As a consequence of this today it is typical to see some photo contest or submission requirements state "no photoshop".  But this type of blatant statement disregards the distinction between edits  that I would define as addressing the limitations of the camera capture and edits that are simply creating a scene or composition that simply did not exist.  Edits for addressing exposure, spot removal, color calibration, etc. are really no different than what was possible before in the dark room, albeit at a much higher level of quality and ease.  At the risk of being accused of self promotion, I have written about that here (http://www.stephenfischerphotography.com/Commentaries/Limits_of_photoshop/Ethical_limits_of_photoshop.html) in the context of potentially using forensic techniques as discussed by Dr. Neal Krawetz in his blog: http://www.hackerfactor.com/blog/.  But there is probably no point in such a dissection here, as it is already clear.  It would be interesting to see more photo tool development go toward identifying such work, as I think that would be handy to help improve the "truthiness" in the field of photography.

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Re: Truth in photography
« Reply #14 on: February 02, 2012, 04:33:14 PM »