Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ethics and Photography

Photo-manipulation is nothing new. It’s just a matter of where you want to start and how you want to define it. When Hippolyte Bayard posed as a drowned man in 1840, he was stretching the truth by staging the photograph. Oscar Rejlander in 1857 created the seamless combination print, The Two Ways of Life, out of 17 negatives (some say as many as 32). Insertion, adding images to the photograph, has been employed since at least 1865 when Matthew Brady added General Blair, to a photograph of Civil War officers. In the early 20th century, the half-tone printing process brought about a proliferation of photo magazines, and the Dadaist of Germany started making photomontages from the photographs found on the pages.

Digital photo-editing programs like Adobe PhotoShop make the possibility for image manipulation easier and perhaps more tempting. As early as 1990 in his book, "In Our Own Image," Fred Ritchin wrote about the potential of digital images to flawlessly manipulate photographic space and called for a need to label image composites in publications. In the book he gives an example of the pyramids being moved to create a vertical image, out of a horizontal photograph, for the cover of National Geographic.

The power of all of these strategies relies on the inherent nature of a photograph to be perceived as truth by the viewer. The idea that a photograph represents an indisputable truth and the debate about image manipulation starts at the inception of the medium and continues to this day. In Germany, Brigitte magazine has implemented a policy effective 2010 to use normal people (instead of size zero models) for images and not retouching them. In France the politician, Valérie Boyer, advocates passing laws that require enhanced photographs to have warning labels. She says, "These images can make people believe in a reality that often does not exist” which can lead to lower self-esteem and eating disorders. Since most advertising images, and many other images, are frequently manipulated there is naturally resistance to this movement. Currently there is a fight brewing in the blogosphere between the blog, Boing Boing, and a Ralph Lauren advertisement. Xeni, a regular contributor on Boing Boing, criticized the image because the model's head is larger than her pelvis, and Ralph Lauren rather than address the criticism has demanded the blog remove the post claiming copyright infringement.

While these trends are important, perhaps the most effective weapon to use against the persuasive effects of the photographic image is to teach people how to read photographs. In the 1940’s Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said that "... the illiteracy of the future will be ignorance of photography." But over 50 years later, media literacy is still not part of the school curriculum, and considering how many images the average person views in a day, it seems like there ought to be some attempt to teach people how to read those images.

The topic of the next segment on Art:21 is fantasy and features the work of photographer,
Florian Maier-Aichen, who creates idealized landscapes by means of digital manipulation. The show will be broadcast at 9 pm, Wednesday, October 14, on KACV.

Additional resources:
Dove Evolution
Top 10 Doctored Photos
Photo-tampering Throughout History

1 comment:

  1. Photographic manipulation and the issue of "what is real" are further complicated by "what is original". In this age of digital communication, one is only a few clicks away from appropriating images. With the advent of digital imaging programs such as Photoshop, composites may not only need reality disclaimers but originality statements as well.