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Photographic Ethics - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Photographic Ethics
I long imposed a Draconian policy on myself in determining which photographs I would post online. If an image required any "post-processing" in Photoshop at all to pass aesthetic muster, I kept to itself. But then I started to scan old negatives and slides which demanded some adjustments and realized that my code was too inflexible. I decided I could modify photos as long as I didn't give them my standard "photography" tag. More recently, I've started to look through my camera movies for stills to post, knowing that my aversion to the use of flash makes it impossible for me to get passable low-light shots of people and pets in motion any other way. But I don't tag the images I get that way as photographs.

Over the past week, though, as I have been experimenting with true night photography, I've come to understand that even these changes to my policy might not go far enough. I was determined to post my shots of cracked pavement and our car in the moonlight just as I saw them. Although I got the right exposure through a process of trial and error, I discovered that my camera recorded too much color information for the finished product to match my vision as-is. I had to desaturate both photos to give them the nearly monochromatic look that surfaces have for human eyes under those conditions.

But I also learned just how much images vary from monitor. On the LG connected to my G4 from 2002 -- a monitor I have never much liked -- the details in both shots were easy to discern. The first-generation Intel-CPU Mac laptop I've been using as my primary machine, however, rendered both photos so dark that they seemed like allegories for my tendency to be willfully obscure.

So I experimented further with Photoshop. What I came to perceive, though, is that making the photos look right on the laptop drained all the magic from them on my desktop. Since the latter's monitor is technically superior to the laptop's screen, I reverted back to the original exposure in the end. But my decision to desturate both images has still been playing havoc with my sense of photographic truth.

When I was getting ready to post my "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" sunset the night before last, I was tempted to mess around with the exposure to bring out details in the ocean that I recalled from my experience of that day last January. Although a few tentative adjustments made it clear that those details could only emerge at the expense of the sky's beauty, leading me to post the original photograph unaltered, the fact that I was so quick to pursue "improvements" in Photoshop troubles me.

I worry that thise two moonlight shots may prove to have been gateway drugs to an ethically unsavory addiction to the conviction that the photographic record is the starting point for the realization of personal truth. -- what I remember seeing -- rather than the "objective" truth that should serve as an end in itself.
13 comments or Leave a comment
celebrian_3 From: celebrian_3 Date: December 10th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm afraid I've never had as many scruples about the use of Photoshop as you. Practically every image I've ever posted has been edited in some manner. I don't trust the camera to capture what I see--especially in digital photography, where dynamic range is limited. For me, what I see has always been more important than what the camera sees, so I use Photoshop to get as close to that as I can--though sometimes, I have been known to take a little artistic license with that:-). Though not so 'elevated' an artform in the eyes of some, I guess I think of photography the way I think of painting; the "truth" of the image is sometimes best created by heightening contrast, saturating or desaturating color, enhancing detail.

I must say, though, that I have always appreciated your rigorousness about your refusal to succumb to the addiction of Photoshop, in a time where truth in the photographic image is more often than not obscured rather than enhanced by digital treatment, and images have become a fetish of perfection. Plus, that kind of rigor I think lends itself to becoming a better photographer, instead of an image creator. Anyone can mess around with Photoshop and make an image, but it takes some real technical skill to produce something effective with minimal or no post-processing.

Now, on the other hand, I could probably show you how you could have adjusted the water for detail without affecting the sky ;-D.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 11th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I know others use Photoshop that way. And it doesn't bother me, unless the end result includes an obvious excision or superimposition that goes against the truth of the image. I'm sure that my "ethical" considerations are in part the product of all the photography books I read as a teen. But I should have concentrated more on darkroom techniques, because many of the tricks I have eschewed in digital photography are ones that the darkroom specialist would have used back in the day.

Oh, and I know how to adjust the water without affecting the sky. But that would have resulted in an image that would have seemed false in relation to my memory of the scene. The detail is there now. It's just submerged.
bitterlawngnome From: bitterlawngnome Date: December 13th, 2009 02:46 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
"Anyone can mess around with Photoshop and make an image"

In all seriousness - Flickr proves this untrue. Using PS is a real legitimate honest to goodness skill.
celebrian_3 From: celebrian_3 Date: December 13th, 2009 10:50 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Looking back, I did speak too hastily. More accurately, I've seen how anyone can take a digital photo and use PS to distort the that image, poorly and beyond the bounds of good art, taste, or reality (I'm probably leaving myself wide open to criticism here). But, the adjustments and "distortions" that Photoshop allows can also be done skillfully and intentionally, to create good art.

I'm probably not phrasing this in the best way, and I can see the holes in what I'm saying as I'm typing it. I guess I was trying to express my sympathy with C's point of view; even though I'm a PS user myself, I occasionally feel I'm skating the close to that territory where my images no longer bear "truth".

I should back off now--I'm getting too close to a splitting-hairs kind of argument that I'm not very skilled at defending myself in :-).
bitterlawngnome From: bitterlawngnome Date: December 13th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I think we mean the same thing, anyway.
masoo From: masoo Date: December 10th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
This is a fascinating post, but, as a point-and-shoot kinda guy, I have to ask: how is making adjustments in the camera prior to taking a photograph more "truthful" than making adjustments on your computer after taking the photograph?
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 11th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
That's a really good question and not one I can answer in a manner that is impervious to deconstruction. But I'll try. Basically, when you mess with a photo after the photographed subject is no longer in front of you, the constraints of reality fall away. Adjustments made prior to taking a photo are different from my perspective because they are subordinated to the truth of the moment. I guess you could say that it's ultimately a temporal distinction.
masoo From: masoo Date: December 11th, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
This is the best kind of artistic theory. I don't buy it, but I understand what you are saying, and understand how it informs your own art. Which is what matters, after all ... they aren't my photos, they are yours, and they reflect your vision.

Of course, I've been known to mess with your photos after the fact :-).
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 11th, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Like I said, I can see how the distinction fails to hold up if enough critical pressure is directed its way. That said, I'm curious what you don't buy, exactly. Is it that you think the constraints I discern aren't there to begin with? Or do you think that those constraints can be transposed to "post-processing" without too much difficulty? Or is it something else that causes you to avoid the sale?
masoo From: masoo Date: December 11th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Well, "sale" isn't really how I should have put it. I think you, as the artist, should follow your own set of photographic ethics. And the results are often exquisite ... you take great pictures. So I'm speaking more in the abstract, or speaking more as I would approach the same topic. I've never thought much about the philosophy of photography, which is one reason I'm enjoying this thread. But when I take a picture, I'm just pointing the camera, framing the picture in a minor but functional way, and pressing click. I am simultaneously grabbing a moment of reality, and adjusting reality. Once I sit at the computer, I adjust reality some more. Obviously reality is part of the scenario, but it's reality with scare quotes ... it's a picture of reality, not reality itself. So any adjustments I make turn faux-reality even more faux. I don't care about the difference between pre and post-processing, and in fact, in the digital age, which is when I have taken the large majority of my pictures (never having a "real" still camera before computers, although I had a movie camera, as in "film" not video), I am already thinking of how I will "fix" the picture before I take it.

But my philosophy of photography is barely existent and not particularly interesting. Yours, on the other hand, clearly informs your work, and your work is excellent. So your philosophy is interesting indeed.
duccio From: duccio Date: December 10th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
On the other hand, is what you see actually what is there, or do we see what is already in our heads, our imaginations; ourselves and our thoughts to see. For me, my pictures are most often if not always, projections of my imagination and/or disposition. I feel like I see me in them... often, not always though. There are other reasons to do photographs.

I recently had my old mac die, and bought a new one. I lost my PS with the old computer. I have yet to get a new PS, and have been using the meagre iPhoto and Photobucket tools. This puts heavy restraints on what editing I am able to do, yet, I am pretty happy with the pics I post. I am surprised to see I don't need the PS for my endeavors.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 11th, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Another great question! I think what I see as being actually "there," in the moment, is so thoroughly conditioned by my experience as a photographer who tries to capture something real, that I don't allow myself subjective flights of fancy or at least ones that go very far.

Even with my new openness to using Photoshop, I probably wouldn't do very much that iPhoto or Picasa can't handle. The main thing I can imagine undertaking would be to add grain or noise to shots I've converted into black and white. For some reason, they benefit from the introduction of such "imperfections."
bitterlawngnome From: bitterlawngnome Date: December 13th, 2009 03:06 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
There are already at least three layers of software/hardware/firmware processing between the light coming through the lens and the file one downloads off the chip - the sensors on the chip, the chip itself, the firmware settings of the camera, the "program" used to shoot with, any stabilization algorithms, the JPG compression, de-fringing, de-artefacting, and then ANY program you use merely to view the image (no alterations!) imposes its own interpretation (try looking at the same RGB image in three different browsers on the same monitor at the same time). Then there is the difference between operating systems and monitors (these last are very vexing for any photographer). And then the minute you resize or "save for web", a host of changes are introduced. And this is not to mention cropping etc.

IMO part of my job as a photographer is to deliver to the viewer a version that will help them know what I perceived. This is what "truthfulness" means to me in photography, and it is rarely achieved without skillful intervention in what the camera spits out.
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