More and more frequently I seem to become engulfed in a debate about whether or not a photographic image is “authentic”. I recently had it out with a friend who works as a photographer and designer, who argued that photographic images that are manipulated by Photoshop are not as good as process-based photographs created in the field using only the camera. Personally I can’t see the difference.
Both of these are different techniques that create the same basic result. In both cases you need skill and training to pull off the photograph. The only difference is in the process – the use of one tool as opposed to the other – and in most cases the final image can be more or less identical, depending on the ability of the photographer / editor.
The use of the computer seems to be the dividing factor. The man-machine interaction appears to play an important role, and our view of computers in particular is still one of skepticism. The ease with which computers, when properly operated, can perform tasks, creates a dramatic sense of under-achievement from the point of view of seasoned practitioners in fields like photography. The amount of time taken and the intensity of actual human interaction is one of the dividing factors on whether or not a photograph is labelled authentic or fake.
“To photoshop” is now a verb in the Oxford English dictionary. In the past words like “lithograph”, “darkroom” and even “photograph” weened their way into English dictionaries through popular use. Darkroom machines like enlargers, and the processing chemicals that were used within were once the forerunners of a popular technological movement that was probably dismissed as cheating as often as it was welcomed. These things are easily forgotten over time, and after a generation or two photoshopping will probably be as common a term as any of the above. Even the fact that the verb is named after the Adobe computer program will probably make little difference, as illustrated by the still popular use of “biro”, “hoover” or “Kodak moment” as terms.
Kodak itself is an interesting item to throw into this debate. The recent end of the long slip of Kodak into a non-entity has been seen as a harbinger of the end of an era in photography in many ways. Kodak, whose entrepreneurial enterprise and technological foresight helped to build one of the most popular affordable camera ranges in the 20th Century, fell from grace after adopting what many saw as a Luddite philosophy with regard their production methods. They abandoned their foresight and lost track of technological advances, and this (among other problems) led to their filing for bankruptcy in 2011.
I see computer-based post-production techniques as a modern-day dark-room. They are used for the same things (adjusting contrast, exposure, lightness, colour, layering images, cutting and collage). That’s not to say that dark-room techniques or playful techniques in the field are obsolete or should be forgotten, but just that there is a strong alternative there and that it can be used like any other processing tool. The user-friendly aspect of Photoshop may be the biggest qualm for seasoned pros – more or less anyone with any computer experience can do something on Photoshop, but without a good photograph (or photographs) Photoshop is still more or less useless.
Whether a work is authentic because of the work that is put into it in the field or because of the post-production seems irrelevant to me. A truly unique and strong work of art should stand out among other works simply because it has a strong visual or conceptual resonance. Recently artist Scott Blake was threatened with legal action for manipulating images and a technique by artist Chuck Close through Photoshop. The full story from Blake’s point of view is fascinatingly recounted on the Hyperallergic zine. Blake makes an important point here about the work of art being an evolutionary process. Images are constantly reinvented and re-manipulated by other artists. If this process was stopped we could not have ended up with incredible art pieces like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, for example.
Authenticity defines strictly as something of undisputed origin. But can any origin be undisputed? The landscape that is painted, the portrait that a photographer portrays, the manipulated image of a cow standing on the Empire State Building – these are all images that are both original and unoriginal. No art piece can be purely authentic, but the delivery can be. Whether guided by machines or not, art is still made by people. A piece of work can at least hold an original identity, regardless of the techniques used to create it.
The greatest techniques of image manipulation haven’t even begun to be invented. But the sooner Photoshop is dethroned then perhaps the better for the program, as it will then become one of the “forgotten arts” and hold a higher providence among a smaller clique who will value Photoshop above its new-technology rival. The Luddites can wait.
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