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Altered States

January 2010, updated June 2015

Cameras never lie, but a computer can.

I’ve a shelf of books by wildlife photographers and it’s a collection I’ve often sought inspiration from. But sadly I’ll be putting one of them away now, for now I’ve realised that of the photographs within, some weren’t photographs at all. They were manipulated images, where elements were deleted or added, or where two or more images were combined to be one. They were pictures that existed only in the photographer’s imagination, created on a computer using pictures taken in the field. The final images might be better classed as photorealistic fantasy art presented under the pretence that they’re photographs.

I spent £40 on this book, a wonderful book full of photography by a wildlife photographer I’d long admired. It’s text speaks of a love of photography, the photographic techniques and equipment used, and of the photographer’s expertise and know-how behind the camera. That’s all well and good, but there was no mention anywhere of his retouching techniques or the time spent in front of a computer.

Photography is this: an honourable representation of the scene before the camera, where at the very least anybody else who was there could say: “I remember that, I was there too!”

Sadly more and more photos are appearing both online and in print whose state does not fulfil this ethic. It’s demeaning to photography and it’s demeaning the work of others by virtue of the fact that more people these days are willing to accept that this is how photographs are generally made now.

Fortunately there are many photographers whose work is so good that it requires no such embellishment. But unfortunately there is a growing number who now feel that they have to find other ways to to get noticed.
Only they’re not photographers anymore really, they’re artists, taking pictures as material for later on. Fair play though if you’re one of these and and you say so, but please don’t omit the detail that by its omission would have the world believe you’re a bona fide photographer.

But some are bound to ask about fine art. Doesn’t that give license for creative composition? It’s possibly an argument, but traditional fine art photography never had to resort to that, and a particular point has to be to do with differentiating this from good to honest straight off the sensor photography. If the manipulation isn’t declared, then all photography gets presented evenly. And it’s already happening, where creative but real photographs are questioned simply because of the presence of composited work elsewhere.

Pictures can have captions describing the equipment and the camera info like aperture and shutter speed. The caption might describe the event too; of the subject; why it was shot at 1/30th say; the choice of focal length; the story behind the taking of the picture even, or any of many other things for useful added information. But by not mentioning the manipulation part, of the added falling rain or extra dust for drama for example, is deceptive. Deliberate omission of the whole truth is deception.

I wonder how many of these are sold with clear consciences? If one is sold as a photograph with the secret knowledge that it’s not, are we being duped? Maybe some buyers don’t care, but others will. They thought that the photo happened, only the photographer knew that it didn’t. “As long as they don’t know, then all will be alright” he thinks. But sometimes the buyer (or viewer) is cleverer than the photographer. Many photographers have been caught out, and many more will still. They may fool some, but not everyone. To good eyes, it doesn’t take too long to notice that the tree behind behind the clear sharp elephant is gently soft only for the hill further away on the horizon to be sharp again. Good eyes won’t take long to see the multidirectional shadows from what, two suns?
A proportion of elephants-under-Kilimanjaro pictures never really happened. The clues are the evidence of two suns, the duplicate elephants, or the impossible points of focus. Or how did that elephant walk there and leave no footprints in the dust? Yet some are being sold as bona fide photography, to unsuspecting buyers who believe they’re admiring a photographer. It’s deception though, often to the buyers who fund the photographer.

Anyway, I was duped when I bought the book. Well, mostly. I’m fairly sure that most of the photos within were genuine. But unfortunately the handful of those that were caught out called all of the other ones into question. Doubt was put onto every one of the pictures because of the questionable ones.

I’ve been taking photographs for a bit more than thirty years, and wildlife for ten. I’ve also twenty something years of image retouching behind me and so far I’ve not been tempted to alter an image. Wildlife photography is like photojournalism, where the genre requires an accuracy and honesty of the recording of the scene before the camera. Otherwise the world will believe things that would never happen naturally.

Should I ever remove a leaf from a picture then I might feel justified in removing a twig next time, then a branch after that. After that, the tree? And so it goes. And if someone should ever spot that I did that then that would call all my other pictures into question. And that’s not too good either.

There’s nothing so wrong with manipulating an image to make it better, or of combining two images to make it one in itself. But please don’t call it photography, or pretend it to be because that would not be fair. If you’re an artist then for the sake of photographers please say so.