Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Altered Reality - Just Another Perspective

So, today, as I was busy organizing my shoelace collection, untieing all those double knots that my daycare teacher tied some 30-odd years ago, I used my idle brain cycles to contemplate Ms. Anais Nin, who passed away some thirty years ago, about the time I was being told I would trip on my un-loosed laces were they not double-tied, who said:

We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are."
I have been reflecting on reality. And have contemplated a myriad of circumstances, from the Geographic's "retroactive repositioning of the photographer", where a horizontal image of the pyramids was made vertical, to accomidate a vertical cover some 20 years ago, to the latest in Photoshop activity by a Toledo Blade photographer.

Where does it stop? Answer: Never, it won't stop. Where did it begin? That's worth pondering a bit.

Photographers have made choices about altering images for generations. However, let's take a less antagonistic approach to the word - let's call it a perspective change. Dartmouth has an interesting timeline here where they call it digital tampering, starting back in 1860.

The earliest black and white photographers, by choosing the right filter could make a woman's freckles disappear. Vanish. Poof! That's a different perspective. A deep red filter made the skies black as night, during midday sun. A polarizer made the skies look unnaturally blue. A polarizer when used with a car's window reflection let you see something the naked eye could never see from the same perspective - through the window and into the car.

Fast forward a few years to color film. Every photographer worth their salt knew how the choice of a particular brand or variation of film altered reality - err, changed perspective. Consider how Velvia would render a subject. How about EPP? And what about when you would put a tunsten gel on your strobe and shoot EPY, EPJ, or EPT? These choices were ones made by photojournalists, and the results published in traditional media outlets.

The rule was, if you could do it in a darkroom, it was ok. Cropping? Ok. Dodging/burning? Ok. High contrast? Ok? Low contrast to open up the shadows, ok. Many even considered the selective bending of the corners of the paper while in the enlarging easel to throw the edges out of focus and leave the center more focused to be acceptable. Ansel Adams himself said the negative as the score and the darkroom master printer as the conductor and symphony, bringing the image to life.

Many a photojournalist would throw an 80A filter on their camera's strobe, and one more on their lens, and see it as fine - a slightly warmer day than it really was, a "golden hour" shot three hours before sunset instead of one.

The camera itself has it's limits. What the eye sees, the camera cannot replicate. The eye's depth of field far and away exceeds what a camera can produce. In fact, the selective choice of a shallow depth of field is an alteration of reality...err, change in perspective. the use of a longer lens to compress the contents of an image and make a moderately filled sidewalk look like it's overcrowded is an easy image to make. When I am in the back of the room of a sparsely attended press conference and I drop down low, and shoot with a long lens between people towards the podium so it appears like there are a lot of people, I am just changing perspective, right?

What if you wanted to apply a "velvia" filter in Photoshop to your images? I'd bet the photo editor would object. But they would not, if you had shot velvia, processed it, and then scanned it in. To paraphrase the Geographic - "retroactive reprocessing." So, if you shot 1/2 of your assignment indoors, with the "fluorescent" setting and a green gel on your strobe, and then when you went outside to finish the assignment, and shot everything on the same setting, and all your outdoor photos looked 30 points magenta, are you allowed to either color-correct that jpeg, or change the white balance of your raw files to "auto" or "daylight", your intended white balance? Is that selective reprocessing?

Consider the tasty apple, and your consumption of it, until you see the other side with the wormhole. You see the apple as you are, not as it is. Consider the hollywood movie set, showing a old cowboy town - looks real, until you walk through a doorway and realize it's just the facade. Again, you were seeing it, at first, as you are, not as it is.

When I produce an image heading to the editorial realm, it's zero alterations for me. No switched body parts, no removing exit signs or other distracting elements. Them's the rules of the game, and I grew up on them, and they feel comfortable to me. For a commercial/corporate client, where the image is headed towards a corporate endeavor, creative license opens wide.

If you're looking to monetize your spare processor cycles, check out what SingleShots.com is doing. You send them your portrait, they'll retouch you, making you more attractive when you submit that photo to online dating services. You too can start this business and retouch people's portraits.

What about the picture of the company executive and the politician at a press conference shaking hands that you set up? Not you, the photojournalist, you the commercial photographer who was serving the purposes of the company's publication. What about the other photojournalists there who knew you, their friend, had set up the shot for the company's internal needs, but since "it happened", is it fair for your photojournalist colleagues to move the photo? It was set up. Is that altered reality, or just another perspective?

I don't have all the answers here, but I do know where I stand in this digital age. I shoot everything - I mean everything - in raw, and I save every raw file. I will bare my raw files to anyone whom I submit my photos to that is in a position to question my imagery to proove that I not only didn't cross the line, I didn't even come close. Though, as I point out above, I didn't alter reality, I chose another perspective, because I don't see things as they are, I see them as I am.
Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Unknown said...

"We must recognize that the interruption of a fluidly and ceaselessly moving three-dimensional Gestalt and its reduction to a static two-dimensional abstraction is a tampering with reality of such magnitude that the only virginity one could claim for any instance of it would be strictly technical at best."
From A.D. Coleman's The Directorial Mode: Notes toward a Definition," 1976

"Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies."
From John Szarkowski's The Photographer's Eye, 1966

Perception is reality.

Anonymous said...

We had a guest lecture by a big-time newspaper guy on photojournalism ethics. He started by saying that all he'd say about editing was that if you could do it in the olden days of the darkroom, then it was fine to do the same in Photoshop - nothing else. He then spent the whole time talking about things like front page images of dead people, naked children, burning buildings, etc. I don't know if he was unaware of what could be done in a darkroom or was just hoping the rest of us were.

Anonymous said...

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