There’s no truth in photography

0

by John T. Fowler

These days everyone knows how powerful image editing programs like Photoshop can be, and people tend to fear that any use of such programs destroys the “truth” in photography.

What people don’t realize is that there never was any true truth in photography.

From the very first photograph ever taken in 1826, by French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, shown here, to the time exposures of the fireworks over Parliament on Canada Day, most photographs ever made depicted some “manipulation” of reality.

Niepce’s image took several hours to register on the minimally-sensitive materials he had available. Certainly the scene changed several times over that period. The fireworks photo is very likely a multiple-exposure where the photographer opens the camera lens, covers it with a dark card, and then, while holding the camera shutter open, briefly removes the card multiple times to expose the recording medium (film or the digital sensor) to several bursts of fireworks.

In each case, the resulting image depicts in a dramatic way, what the photographer saw in the mind’s eye at the time.

Science has not yet developed either film or sensor that can capture detail in the full range of tones that the human eye perceives. In the days of film, photographs were routinely manipulated in the darkroom by “burning in” or darkening portions of the image and “dodging” or lightening other portions.

These days we do this with image editing programs, such as Photoshop and others. Same thing, easier, more powerful.

Consider, for example, my image of Almonte’s Old Town Hall shown here. It’s a fine image, popular and one I’m proud of. Folks buy it for gifts.

Almonte Town Hall (2)Photo © John T. Fowler 2009

It’s heavily manipulated, not in Photoshop but in another image editor that takes the best parts of several different exposures of the same scene and combines them into the beautiful fall scene I saw in my mind’s eye when I made the exposure.

Is this image then a true representation of the scene? I believe it is, because it tells the story of that fall day just the way I saw it.

Here’s another manipulated image of a Ukranian Church on the lonely Saskatchewan prairie. I’ve added nothing to this image, nor taken anything away from it. But I’ve enhanced the drama of a frail symbol of faith and determination standing proudly against a stormy big sky environment.

There’s another aspect to digital image editing programs – the ability to easily add or subtract things from an existing image. Once again, it’s nothing new. As a magazine editor in the 1970s I was doing this with a razor blade and rubber cement.

It’s a lot simpler now with Photoshop, of course – moving a head from one group image to another or adding one person to a family group for a Christmas card photo. But it’s the same thing.

Where things get a bit dicey is when a photojournalist (or a magazine) adds or moves things around in a news photo. Photographers have been fired from their employment for doing this in recent times. And magazines have been caught out in “adjusting” things to better suit a cover layout. Try googling the phrase “moving pyramids” for an embarrassing example.

In that case, the truth was out because the photographer noticed and complained.

Thus – if there is no truth in photography, there can still be truth in photographers.

I’ll explore this question again in this column, as suitable images present themselves.

If you have a comment on this or any other photographic subject, or a photo you’d like considered, please drop me a line at photos.millstone@bell.net. I read everything and will do my best to answer questions.