From Photoshop to Filters: Living in the Age of Photography Skepticism
photo: Christopher Tomas / via dailymail.co.uk
We live in the age of skepticism. In all things, yes, but especially in photography.
For instance, BuzzFeed recently ran a list of Perfectly Timed Photographs, and while the shots were awesome, the dominant sentiment in the comments section was along the lines of “These were obviously Photoshopped.” Listen, some of the images might have been manipulated in this case, but I do find it sad that we’ve gotten to a point where viewers of spectacular photography tend not to take into account just how spectacularly talented photographers can be. To be fair, some commenters—photographers themselves, one guesses—rejected the idea that each of these shots couldn’t have been captured with a mixture of the right gear, the right place/right time, and a healthy dose of patience.
This is not a rant against Photoshop. I don’t intend to assert that Photoshop and other post-production software are out of place in the world of photography. Obviously, editing is an essential part of the process and many professionals use software to tweak elements of their shots in order to produce the highest possible impact. This is about the climate of disbelief that has been inevitably generated by these tools, and by the more recent ubiquity of filters, thanks in large part to Instagram. (Which DP loves!) This is about the knee-jerk skepticism that denies a viewer the experience of looking at a photograph in genuine wonder. And, in turn, giving credit where credit is due to the photographer who pulled off such an artistic and technical feat as capturing a passenger plane at the moment it crossed the path of the moon.
In a way, this is simply a rant, because I’m not offering an answer. I don’t think there is one, except to keep encouraging photographers to practice their craft.
photos: Unidentified American artists / via Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop
This skepticism isn’t actually new. Brain Pickings recently featured a book called Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop. As Maria Popova points out, the book is the companion to a current exhibition of the same title at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aside from providing pure delight, the photographs found in the book, and on view at the Met, teach us that the art of manipulating photographs vastly predates the digital age. And that very early on this visual trickery created an uncertain relationship with “visual truth.” From the Met:
Featuring some 200 visually captivating photographs created between the 1840s and 1990s in the service of art, politics, news, entertainment, and commerce, the exhibition offers a provocative new perspective on the history of photography as it traces the medium’s complex and changing relationship to visual truth.
(Please note that the exhibition is sponsored by Adobe Systems Incorporated, maker of Photoshop.) The images in Faking It are divided into seven categories: Picture Perfect, Artifice in the Name of Art, Politics and Persuasion, Novelties and Amusements, Pictures in Print, Mind’s Eye, and Photoshop. It’s interesting and useful to see how each of these sections serves as a road map, I believe, to where we are today. To this place I’m calling The Age of Photography Skepticism, which isn’t really an age so much as a state of mind. And I have to admit that after looking at these old images more closely, I’m not so convinced that’s a bad place altogether. It’s worth considering how exciting photo manipulation is when viewed in this old-timey context. It loses the sting of “Meh, that was Photoshopped” and instead manipulation becomes an art form to marvel at just as one would marvel at well-executed, untouched photography.
In the end, I guess this isn’t a rant against anything at all. Maybe it’s a call (to myself, to you) to approach all photography with fresh eyes. After years—in the digital age and long beforehand—of viewing photo manipulation, post-production editing tricks, and a heavy layering of filters, some of us might need to refresh our settings. First, it would do us well to give photogrphers of jaw-dropping images the benefit of the doubt and at least consider that they could have captured such stunning images with nothing more than a good camera and a good eye. Second, now I can see that it’s equally as important that we recontextualize the “that’s obviously Photoshopped” indictment, turning it into a compliment—a celebration of the amazing things artists can do with editing tools.
Either way, let’s promise to always be excited by good photography. Because there should always be an audience for the beautiful images shutterbugs like you make.
Dear DP readers, this has been my final post for Digital Photographer. After four and half years, I am passing the mantle of Editor on to former “Politics in Photography” contributor and talented photographer Debbi K. Swanson Patrick. I have been honored to be a part of the DP community these past several years, on the journey from print to digital publication, and from the crowded halls of CES Las Vegas to the inspiring daily task of choosing a reader photo to feature in our closeUP column. I will still be a part of the DP community going forward, and I will always count on you to provide me with the experience of looking at photography in genuine wonder.
Keep Shooting, Allison Gibson