As we’ve delved deeper into just what you can achieve via the likes of Camera Raw and Photoshop, the conversation in class has turned to whether the ability to manipulate images to such extremes equates to cheating. My initial thoughts were that – pre-digital – photographers had very little room for error. They had to get the actual shot right and would then spend hours in a darkroom working to transform their best negatives into their very best works. Conversely, nowadays, you can whack an image through Photoshop and not only remove imperfections with one quick click, but drastically alter how someone even really looks; be that by widening the bridge of their nose, giving them fuller lips or changing their actual eye shape, so that the actual finished work does not truly represent the subject before the lens. It seemed to me that the speed with which we can now improve/change a digital image – dramatically in some instances – did equal cheating. Basically, you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, if you know what all those buttons on Photoshop actually do.
Zig, our tutor, was having none of it, and a heated debate ensued until Zig pulled out his defensive trump card: the work of two iconic photographers, taken well before digital photography was even a twinkle in Steve Sasson’s eye.
Bill Brandt’s use of artificial light; photomontage; reverse negatives and, when all else failed, a pencil to sketch in what was never there in the first place, was considered wildly unorthodox by some. In Halifax, Brandt added the smoke emerging from the factory tower, not that you’d ever know it at first glance. And while the two prints of People Sheltering in the Tube appear almost identical, bar the darkened depth of the second print, look closer and you will see that Brandt has edited out the elderly man in the right of the first print. Finally, the abstract, surreal air of Nude London highlights Brandt’s mastery of the retouching process.
Meanwhile, Sir Cecil Beaton, CBE was regaled for his ability to capture a woman’s beauty but his flattering retouching skills were also legendary, as his Charwoman to Dowager attests.
As we reflected on all the above, it suddenly dawned on me that if art never changed we’d still be stuck in some dank cave, losing our minds over wall paintings of stick men hunting buffalo and I’d never have gone to the David Hockney Exhibition at Tate Britain earlier this year. The very fact that photography is an ever (and fast) evolving art form is what makes it so varied and exciting. (It was about this time that I also decided to stop giving Zig a hard time about Photoshop being witchery).
As with all art, personal choice is everything. Whether you opt to use every trick in the book to create the image of your desire or, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, take the purist route of only working with available light, never posing your subjects and never cropping your images, is up to you. Whether others like what you do is up to them. but it’s still art however you got there.
Or, to quote the great Bill Brandt (who, frankly, can do no wrong in my eyes and puts it far more eloquently):
‘Photography is not a sport. It has no rules.
Everything must be dared and tried.’
It’s a thought process that’s been a bit of a brain-worm for me these past few days as, having finally bought the Adobe Creative Cloud kit, I’ve been wiling away hours editing photo’s for this course’s final project. The levels of image manipulation now open to me seem endless and I’m saving snapshot after snapshot as I try to decipher what I’m trying to achieve. Undoubtedly, selecting the final five images is going to be the hardest part as I am rubbish at self-editing. But what matters ultimately, I suppose, is that I end up creating something that I’m happy with, or at least am pretty happy with and aware of the areas where my ideas fell short. Some people may like my work, others may not, but only by experimenting will I ever discover what works for me.