Is photography dead?

Peter Plagens ponders this question in at article at Newsweek.

In my opinion the article is a little superficial, but then it is in a ‘mainstream’ weekly news magazine, so I suppose that it’s not really the place for an in-depth feature exploring the philosophical ramifications of the transition of photography from a ‘reality-based’ analogue to a digitally ‘enhanced’ one.

Photography isn’t dead, but it’s certainly in a state of flux, and the boundaries between the schools of photography — which for my own convenience I’ll call artistic, documentary and snapshotty — are blurring as creative tools of increasing sophistication are being made available to all and sundry.

I recall that back at school when I was doing A-Level photography, there was an exam question which asked whether photography was a fundamentally trustworthy medium. Even then I think I answered, ‘depends on the photographer’.

I now work at a newspaper (albeit not as a photographer), where the role of the photographers is ostensibly to use their tools to further some Platonic ideal of jouralism: to observe, document, report without bias. But I have learned that a resulting photograph’s verisimilitude is dependent on so many more factors than I had anticipated at age 18: the vagaries of photo- and news editors, the designers’ need to compensate for the vagaries of the medium and the composition of the page, and of course varying skill in the use of, and interference by, the almighty Photoshop.

As an aside, and perhaps worth exploring in another post: no matter how masterful your picture, if it’s being printed on gray absorbent paper at 200lpi, you’ll be lucky to have it come out exactly as you intended. Harried page designers have no time for sympathy. They’re doing their best under tremendous pressure, but at the end of the day the deadline is scarier than you.

Where was I?

Right: the trustworthiness of the medium. It still depends on the photographer, but the possibilities for digital manipulation have lowered the threshold in many respects, and the person who pressed the shutter is not necessarily any longer the only one who can influence the look of the image, especially in the media.

Of course there are ethical guidelines, and people get fired for crossing the line. The question whether the guy who manipulated a photograph to make the light more moody should have been fired remains (to me) inconclusively answered; arguably he might just have been compensating for the limitations of the medium; a photographer has the right to under- or overexpose as much as he or she likes, so why not the media designer guided by necessity?

On the one hand, no: digital manipulation is a slippery slope, and if I am a 100% ethical page designer, I will leave pictures well enough alone.

On the other, what good is a picture — after all included for illustration purposes — in which the colours are so far out of gamut that it loses all illustrative value if printed uncorrected?

Slippery slope indeed.

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About lidlesseye

Mouthing off about photography, and occasionally important things too.

Posted on December 6, 2007, in Culture, Photography. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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