Monday, January 22, 2007

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

There is a lively discussion going on at the TexasPhotoForum debating the validity of "photoshopped" images represented in the International Print Competition held annually by the Professional Photographers of America.

One point of view is that the notion of "pure photography"—photographs unmanipulated by imaging software—is being superceded by heavily manipulated imagery (I cringe at the word "manipulated"; it has a negative connotation undeserving of the world of creative results achieved by talented individuals).

I am PPA member and have an image represented in the PPA International Print Competition. I have another point of view.

I do a lot of "straight out of the camera" photography, and have been doing it for more years than I care to admit. I also have a background in painting. Much of my painting-applied-to-photography has been utilized commercially in the area of interpreted portraits—photographs made to appear as oils or watercolors. I eventually wanted to utilize this skill and associated tools (Painter, Photoshop) in conjunction with my personal photographic work. I like to shoot scenics that have already-present abstract quilites in them.
Here's an example:

Click on image to view full size.

When I reviewed the series of photographs that the above image came from, I was immediately struck with how much it inherently had an almost abstract expressionist painting quality. It became the canvas upon which I applied my painterly strokes.
Here is the result:

Click on image to view full size.

I am in the process of pursuing what has become a lifelong goal: To blur the distinction between photography and painting. Why would I do that? Well, both photography and painting are creative mediums that I am adept at. Technology has leveled the playing field. These two formerly exclusive mediums now co-exist effortlessly on the computer monitor. I can now literally dip my paintbrush into a photograph!

The genie is out of the bottle—there is no going back with respect to tools like Photoshop and Painter as applied to photography. That's not to say that there isn't room for pure photography. I still love shooting what I see in an effort to freeze a moment and its unique emotional charge.

Photographs of this intent are difficult to add to with any of the myriad of technical gee-gaws we now have at our disposal. I have banged my head against many such images in an attempt to "improve" them with little or no success: the image stands on its own—further interpretation detracts from the original moment.

I think that the headlong rush of technology and its impact on photography is straining the PPA's International Print Competition to its current limit. Photography is in the throes of a major sea change. There will always be—and must be—a place for pure photography, but as I said: the genie is out of the bottle.

Photography will continue experience upheaval as photographers become acquianted with the new tools that are emerging. Let's not fail to recognize that ever since the first photographic image was developed there have been subjective decisions applied by the photographer.

I'm guessing that the PPA higher-ups will be adjusting the categories and criteria for the Print Competition in the near future. As many who visited the PPA Print Competition recently in San Antonio have noted, it is becoming top-heavy with manipulation. No—make that top-heavy with creative expression.

I would love to see an expanded categorization that allows each approach to shine on its own. I will always believe that there is room for creative expression within any medium.


  1. John, I agree with you totally, I laugh when I her photogs complaining about manipulation heavens they have been manipulating photos long before the computer, with filters on the camera and the ( can't remember what we called the light stand we used with the negative to make prints) and with the developing solutions, plus tinting them after they were developed. It is just easier to do now, with the new tools at hand, it still takes skill and a good eye to make an image worth looking at.!

  2. John,

    I also agree with you and Edie. Photography (classic and modern) is completely about the manipulation of light either by manipulating the exposure, the light path, the processing, or even by dodging and burning the traditional way in a darkroom. One of the greatest heros of photography, Ansel Adams, was the master of manipulation in the darkroom. The only difference today is that the tools are so much more sophisticated, making it easier and faster to achieve the desired results.

    I wrote my lengthy opinion on a similar debate of what is art in my blog a while ago at Art... What is?". I think that the same principles apply to the photographic debate. What is a photograph? To me, it is capturing a moment in time that reflects a combination of how I perceived the image and the emotion it evoked in me. I then try to translate those ideas and qualities into a form that can stimulate a viewer in a similar way. That is my way to share my vision with others. Photography just happens to be my medium of translation.

    I also would like to thank you so much for developing the tools that helps us photographers/artists to more efficiently and accurately achieve our vision.