When is a photograph… not? (Or, “I know it when I see it”)

This is not a new question.  It’s been debated since the invention of the medium. (Refer to Review: Believing is Seeing – Observations on the Mysteries of Photography by Errol Morris) However, since our digital world has almost completely taken over photography, the situation has gotten considerably more complicated.

Definition of a photograph:  An image created by light falling on a light-sensitive surface, usually photographic film or an electronic imager such as a CCD or a CMOS chip. Most photographs are created using a camera, which uses a lens to focus the scene’s visible wavelengths of light into a reproduction of what the human eye would see. The process and practice of creating photographs is called photography. The word “photograph” was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek φῶς (phos), meaning “light”, and γραφή (graphê), meaning “drawing, writing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.

Drawing with light.  That seems to be the truest sense of the medium.

I was at an art show in Santa Fe recently and a photographer had a sign in her booth that said, “No digital, no inkjet, no Photoshop, no Image Manipulation”.  She shot with film, but the images were color, so when she sent the image off to the printer, she immediately lost all control over the end product.   Nonetheless, she felt the image represented what she saw and she felt her image was “real”.   A modern camera, even a film one, has many controls that the individual photographer can adjust.  Where does this “artist” draw the line?  Digital I guess.  Though, if she does not print the images herself, I can’t see how she can be anything more than a simple photographer (vs. artist).

OK, so her stuff is a photograph.  But what about black and white?  The world is not monochrome, but those images, certainly if taken with a film camera, are considered “real”. Buy what happens when the film photographer uses filters, dodges, burns, crops, or tones?  The result is not what was seen through the viewfinder, so is it a photograph?  Most people would still say yes, if for no other reason than it is true to the medium as it has been traditionally defined.

When we start looking at digital images I’m reminded of the 1964 Supreme Court opinion by Justice Potter Stewart in the case challenging the obscenity laws when he said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

 I know it when I see it.   That may be the best we got.

What about HDR (High Dynamic Range)?  If you blend the exposures of 6 or 60 images to see within every shadow and highlight, is that real?  Is exposure blending of 3 f-stops OK, but blending 30 not?   If an HDR image is over processed it becomes cartoonish or begins to look like a bad painting.  It may be art (by some non-judgmental definition), but is it a photograph?  In my opinion, I think not, if for no other reason than it has strayed too far from the medium.

Just because the original capture was done with a camera, I’m not sure that’s enough to have it be defined as a photograph.  It may be a digital capture, or an inkjet painting, or something else, but I believe the label Photograph should be reserved for images that look like, well, photographs.

What happens if a photograph is printed on canvas and covered with a thick layer of encaustic while adding images cut from the local newspaper?  Is that still a photograph or is it a mixed media artwork?  I think most people would have a hard time calling it a photograph, and I don’t see how that differs from extreme HDR.

What about Photoshop manipulation whereby objects are added or taken away? Art Wolfe says some of his photos may have people or animals added or deleted to create a pleasing composition.  Most of his images are staged and over color saturated.  Are they still photographs?  I think most people would say yes because they look like some version of the world that might be plausible.

And then there’s this from the recent New Yorker (go to the last image in the slideshow).  Something tells me both the fish and the man are not to their original scale.  I suspect the fish is a lot smaller in real life.   This image is being billed as a photograph.  Give me a break.  This is way over the line.  It may be art, but is it’s NOT a photo.  Just capturing an image with a camera is not enough.

I know it when I see it is far too subjective, but too many images are called photographs when clearly, they are not. They may be “art”, but a photo?

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