Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Defending The Use of Photoshop In Photography

"You Photoshopped this picture, didn't you?" I hear that question sometimes. Maybe it is phrased differently, but the idea is the same: your photography is not grounded in reality.

Eat Deli Gas
It's an accusation, really. Are you a photographer or digital artist? True photography, after all, is not manipulated. Photographs never lie.

But photographs do lie. All of them. No photograph tells the truth. None. Ever.

Every photograph is biased in one way or another. Camera choice. Lens choice. Film choice. Camera settings. Vantage point. Composition. Aperture. Shutter speed. ISO. Focus. The list goes on and on of all of the ways that photographs are biased even before any post-processing is applied.

Reality is a tricky thing. Albert Einstein said, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." Reality is whatever you want it be. Is Eat Deli Gas grounded in reality? Yes, it is grounded in the reality found in my own mind.

I've noticed lately that a lot of photographers are defending their use of Photoshop by saying something to the effect of, "Cameras are not capable of capturing a scene accurately and so I use Photoshop to make the pictures more accurate." I disagree with that argument.

I don't disagree that cameras are not capable of capturing a scene as good as the eye and brain can. I don't disagree that Photoshop can be used to make a picture more accurate. What I disagree with is the idea that photographs must be accurate. It is asking a photograph to be something it is not capable of. Photographs are not truthful and they cannot be truthful.

French painter Rene Magritte was frustrated by this same thing. In 1929 he made The Treachery of Images, which is a painting of a pipe with the words "this is not a pipe" printed on it. And that was truth: a painting of a pipe is not an actual pipe. Just as my image of a sign is not in itself a sign. And just like my photograph of saguaros are not actual cacti.

All photographs lie and reality is an illusion. It is much better to embrace that than to fight against it. It is better to openly accept it and enjoy the freedom of it than to pretend that photographs are not biased.

Ce N'est Pas Un Cactus
Those critics (most of which are amateur, armchair critics) who look down their nose at photographers who use Photoshop do so because they don't understand all of this. They've never thought deeper than "this looks real" or "this doesn't look real" and they never imagine that there might be more to it than that. They don't bother to find the meaning.

Take Eat Deli Gas, for example. It is a joke, first of all. A gross, immature joke. I saw the sign and found some humor. If I didn't alter the image, the joke might be less obvious. Second, by somewhat altering the colors I was able to create an image with color contrast that catches the eye. If I had failed to do so you wouldn't give the photograph anything more than a passing glance. Instead, you might look at it long enough to catch the humor.

I'm not really a big fan of extensive post-processing. Moderation is a wise ideal. But a photograph should not be judged by the amount of post-processing that it was given. A photograph should be judged by whether or not it is good. The problem is that many critics don't really know what makes a great photograph, well, great.

Photographers should not be ashamed that they use Photoshop. I don't know if it better to attempt to educate the critics on this, or, when asked, simply answer, "Yes, I do." Either way, it is the critic's problem and not the artist's problem.

In my case, I don't use Photoshop at all. I don't even own it. So I can truthfully answer, "No, I didn't Photoshop that photograph." Perhaps that is misleading. Then again, all photographs are misleading, so does it matter what I say? Not really.

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