December 10th, 2009

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.