Monday, October 26, 2009

WARNING: this model's hips were made smaller than her head in Photoshop. Human beings do not look like this.

Or; What's all the fuss about?

This advert for Ralph Lauren seems to have become the nexus for some quite strange responses to what many seem to see as the "problem" of digital manipulation (and has also confusingly become conflated and confused with the separate issue skinny models and unrealistic body image). I'm going to stick to digital manipulation - or more accurately, image manipulation

There has been something of an outcry about this and other similar images which has led to, among other things, a call from the British Liberal Democratic Party that all such images be labelled with the equivalent of the Surgeon General's warning on cigarette packets, identifying how much the image has been manipulated on a scale from 1 to 6. French parliamentarians also seem to be following suit.

(Paul Strand)

This has also been echoed in many area of the photographic press and blogdom and conveyed in the sort of sentiments which see this as a threat to "real" photography, which apparently aims to accurately show facts and/or tell the truth. The assumption seeming to be that such photography (often, though not always, advertising photography) is a threat because the more of it the public sees and is exposed to, the less and less they will trust real or proper photography.

Now, aside from the ridiculousness and absolute impracticality of trying to grade levels of digital manipulation - and I'm wondering how many members of the public were "taken in" by this and other such photographs; "Mum, what kind of diet do I have to go on to get my head to grow so big?" or indeed whether readers would take any notice of such warning anyway - it's simply a red herring as well as an excuse for some rather uptight photographers to get their knickers in a twist.

(W.E. Smith)

The point is that all this digital manipulation - indeed digital photography in general (whereby anyone can easily and simply play around with digital photographs on their home computers) - is a good thing. I'll say that again: digital photography and digital manipulation is a good thing. Especially for photography.

Digital photography has done photography as a whole a great favour over the last decade or so. It has stripped away much of the veil that the high priests of photography liked to keep between photography and Joe Public to prevent them from realising that photography isn't quite what they were led to believe.

(Walker Evans)

That is, the camera frequently lies and rarely tells the truth (and certainly not the whole truth and nothing but the truth). And that photographs which apparently present "facts" or "evidence" should be treated with a large grain of salt. People are now seeing much more clearly than ever before that most photographs (even photojournalistic ones) are constructs and fictions and that whatever evidence they may claim to present is at best inherently ambiguous, and that the photograph and reality are usually poles apart. Photographs have never presented an objective and impartial viewpoint and this has now become much more obvious to anyone who cares to look. Photographs rarely tell one clear and simple story - despite what may be the photographers intentions - and the viewer now has open to them a multiplicity of legitimate ways to read and understand the photograph.

I find that people are now far less likely to confuse the photograph with the thing photographed - a situation that had existed pretty much since the invention of the medium. People are also much more likely to cast a questioning eye back over photographs (as well as the "authorized" facts surrounding them) from before the digital era. Photographs are no longer trusted blindly in the way they were once generally expected to be.

This should really be seen as an incredibly liberating thing by photography as a whole rather than putting us on the defensive. Photographers no longer need to expend so much energy on trying the maintain their inherited fictions about their medium - i.e. allowing that it is a fiction - and we can now direct that wasted energy towards creativity and imagination instead. As a result viewers of photography have been granted much more freedom to come to the photographic image with their own ideas and understandings.

Perhaps it's time to stop worrying about the bogus threat of digital photography and digital manipulation and instead look at ways of exploring the new landscape and freedom that it continues to open up for us. Not as a technology but as a paradigm.

(Top photograph via Photshop Disasters - who were ordered by Ralph Lauren to take it down from their site, contrary to the Fair Use provision of US Copyright. The other photographs are all pre-digital and are just three examples of photographs that were manipulated in one way or another for publication or presentation)


db said...

At heart I do agree with your premise.

The catch is that the process of weaning the public off the belief that a photo= truth, like weaning a baby off a favorite comforter, is likely to be accompanied by a period of indignant screams, red faces and ugly scenes...

;) said...

Kids in this day and age STILL do not realize that all photographs in magazines have been photoshopped in some way. They look at it and then starve themselves to want to look like something that does not exist.

doonster said...

"Photographs rarely tell one clear and simple story - despite what may be the photographers intentions"
I often see it the other way around - photograph(er)s presenting a singular point of view in a complex, multi-faceted world.
In some ways I think the discussion/argument about individual photographs and their manipulation distracts from the discussion required about wider context and isolation of "facts".

Anonymous said...

To claim that photography doesn't tell the truth and is fiction is splitting hairs. The objective and real truth is not for anyone or anything to experience. Your whole concious self is a product of cognitive processes that aren't true in an absolute sense. Photography is capable of telling a photographic truth and Photoshop is capable of telling a "Photoshopped" truth. I think the distinction is significant. I do however agree with you that these kinds of images (the RL-ad) serve to educate the public about how easily a photograph can be manipulated. Digital software is here to stay and it is futile to fight it.

Unknown said...

It would be nice to think that people can tell the difference between what is realistic and what is not. For a woman to have an unnaturally tiny waist for her age and a huge head is obviously not possible. Digital imaging is something that photographers probably use to imply a message versus try to change the way people view themselves personally.Sometimes people think too literally.