Morality of Manipulation

I am tired of the term "photoshopped" and the seemingly endless obsession with knowing if an image was "photoshopped" and hence not real and therefore not as good as something that was not "photoshopped."  This will be the last time I put "photoshopped" in quotes and I will not be capitalizing it either, sorry Adobe.

First, what isn't photoshopped? An image is considered to be captured in-camera and unaltered if that image is printed with no changes to contrast, white balance, sharpness or any other image attributes. The same rules apply to the film process -- if the negative is not altered in any way, such as double exposure, then it is an in-camera capture. However, film development is a bit of a slippery slope since how you choose to actually develop the negative is already a choice about image manipulation--more on that later. The dictionary definition of photoshopping is "to alter (a digital image) with Photoshop software or other image-editing software especially in a way that distorts reality (as for deliberately deceptive purposes)."

Before exploring that definition, we need to be clear that it is not just photoshop we are discussing. There are literally hundreds of photo editing programs and even in-camera software that will manipulate images as they are captured. No matter what software is used to manipulate images, they are still being photoshopped.  Just like when I use Bing to search for a word online, I am really just Googling it.

At this point you might be processing the fact that almost every image you have ever seen when browsing the web or looking at physical prints has been manipulated in some way.  They are all photoshopped. Even if the image has been cropped, and the contrast or brightness adjusted. Publications like National Geographic or some news organizations demand the actual memory cards from photographers in order to reproduce photographs they can prove were not altered. But even these companies still manipulate basic elements of a photo like brightness and saturation. Or they crop things (gasp).  They are photoshopped, per the nifty definition above.


So now we have a definition that codifies how, in general, people look at photoshopping as a deceptive technique. We also know that almost all images are altered in some fashion-whether through in camera software (digital) or through multiple darkroom and printing choices (film).  Deceptive is not a neutral word. And usually we are not discussing photoshopping in neutral terms but rather dismissive or critical terms.  The word has taken on a totally negative meaning.  And the word also applies to practically every image you have ever seen.  We know this is the accepted definition and feeling on the word, because comedy and satire tell us it is so.  Example: comedic and mocking ads of Adobe Photoshop wrinkle remover focus attention on the lack of trust in what we see--and we all get the joke.

Before any film nuts go all Ansel Adams-zone-system-pure-art crazy on me, we should also acknowledge that film images are manipulated with the same goals in mind as digital images, and sometimes to better results. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently running an exhibition called Faking It that explores image manipulation before computers and fancy software.  The exhibit does a nice job of showing many types of photo editing that are still used today and also explores why we alter images.  You might have guessed that the historic reasons are identical to the modern reasons. We alter and manipulate our images to make them more aesthetically pleasing, to clean up a poorly executed negative (film or RAW file),  to add more context to a scene, to create something that would otherwise be impossible due to laws Newton wrote about, to create things no one has seen before outside of the artist's mind, and for propaganda (also known as advertising). 

I think it is that last reason that has created all the negativity around the idea of photo manipulation and the term photoshopping.  I think we can blame magazines and celebrity retouching for this entire mess and the hijacked word. Retouching is not new to our time, even though we like to discuss how Britney Spears smaller waist and lack of pores on a magazine cover are signs of the moral decay of our culture.  Here is an image from a entire book on how to retouch photos from 1930.  From an artistic standpoint, I think the guy on the left (original) is a whole lot more interesting.  His face tells a serious story.  However, you know the guy on the right is the one you are going to let buy you a milkshake at the local soda bar--despite his missing digit.

old book.jpg

The next image is a modern version of the same exact process.  But now images that are being used to sell products or claim benefits are regulated--it is in fact illegal to use them in some cases.  This reinforces the negative moral tone of the word photoshopping. It is also why people wonder incredulously, "Hmm, I bet they just used photoshop for that.." when they look at most photography now.  Of course they did dear viewer, of course they did.


The world of photography is arguably the most important visual art of our time and part of the reason is that the tools and means of production are faster and better than ever. Photographers are accomplishing the same tasks as eighty years ago, but in seconds not hours. The positive way to speak about many of the images lumped into this category is conceptual photography. It is not a new form of photography at all. The image of Dali (below) by photographer Philippe Halsman has minor manipulations like cropping and masking wires that are holding the easel in midair.  But this is actually a single exposure after five hours and 26 tries with minor post production edits. Conceptual photography like this image is far more accessible and much easier to produce with current tools.  The result is not only less angry and less wet cats, but truly immersive visuals.   As with all art, some of it is better executed and more engaging to the viewer, and hence stands out above the crowd--and there is definitely a crowd when it comes to photography now.


It is a sign of lazy critique or no thought at all, that we use a term with negative moral connotations to describe images that have been edited as less important than images that have not been touched.  There are even subsets of this lazy way of thinking inside the world of photography. For example people like to dismiss images that are composed using HDR versus more "natural" images.  It is endless and like judging a painter who did not make their own paints from clay and herbs as less of an artist than the painter who likes that as part of their process. Is a painter less of a painter because he did not mix mud to create his colors?  Is a sculptor less of a sculptor because she uses 3D scanning to capture her small scale studies to create pieces at a monumental size?  

There is no inherent morality to photoshopping an image or using technology or store bought supplies when creating a photograph. What people decide to do with those images after they are produced and shared with the world is an entirely different matter. 


Faking It installation at the Metropolitian Museum of Art
Faking It iOS app (free)
Gallery of images below show examples of Conceptual Photography