The Truth About Digital Photography

From the ANU Reporter Vol. 46 No. 2, May 2015

In the world Trending #2

There have been two different phases in the relatively short history of digital photography.

First was the apocalyptic phase, when there were dire warnings of ‘the end of photography’. The coming ‘revolution’, it was claimed, would fundamentally reconfigure the photographic ‘eye’.

We would be cast adrift from the firm shores of analogue photography, where chemical emulsion reliably reacted to the light reflected from real-world scenes, and left to float on a digital sea where pictures, now just data, could be changed at will.

Like many apocalypses, this one didn’t come. Although iconic names such as Kodak were swept away into history, the practice of photography itself went from strength to strength.

Cameras got cheaper and smaller and people took more and more photos to post on social media. Far from being bankrupted, the newly ubiquitous medium gained more impact than ever.

What those Chicken Littles didn’t realise is that photography is much more than just a technology, it is a social practice, a personal habit, a psychological need, an accumulated history of looking and, increasingly, a global network of exchange.

Photographic truth is supported by social protocols, and it is the multiple micro-recalibrations of these that we are currently experiencing in the second phase of digital photography. News organisations still protect direct photon to pixel mapping.

When Adnan Hajj, a hapless stringer for Reuters, was caught out by sharp-eyed bloggers using Photoshop’s clone tool to increase the amount of smoke rising from Beirut after a 2006 Israel bombing raid, he was summarily dropped. All 920 of his images were immediately removed from the Reuters site and a picture editor was sacked.

However, while minor excisions and additions to the image are strictly policed, enhancements or modifications to the connotational ‘feel’ of the reportage image as a whole are still allowed by press photography protocols.

In 2010, Stepan Rudik was stripped of his World Press Photo award.  He had radically cropped thephotograph he submitted, Street Fighting, Kiev, Ukraine, and  applied a heavy Photoshop filter to it. But that wasn’t why he was stripped of the award, it was because he had digitally removed a tiny pinch of pixels representing the intrusive foot of an irrelevant figure in the background of the image.

This year, 20 per cent of World Press Photo entries were disqualified for similar digital cutting and pasting and controversies like these, big and small, continue to erupt across the Internet.

But if we take a sideways step into celebrity photography, we find not only a tolerance for digital enhancement, but an expectation of it.

We are all now so completely habituated to seeing the flawless, poreless, skin of our celebrities stretched over their cheekbones that we barely give the routine post-production enhancement of the glossy images we consume a second thought. Indeed we now expect it as a kind of fantasy ‘truth’.

When 224 un-retouched photographs from a Beyoncé advertising shoot were released on a fan site earlier this year, before the texture of her tiny acne scars, moles and wrinkles had been digitally smoothed away, her fans “freaked out”, and were left “shocked and lost”.

The site was forced to remove the photographs of what they maintained was just Beyoncé as a “naturally beautiful” “regular woman” because “some of the things we have seen posted were just horrible, and we don’t want any part of it”.

But, before we laugh too quickly at the betrayal Beyoncé’s deluded fans felt, we must realise that reportage photos are also routinely undergoing similar makeovers.

In 2013, another controversy engulfed the World Press Photo Award when winner Paul Hansen’s Gaza Burial was accused of digital manipulation. It was eventually revealed that it was the product of the superimposition of three separately modulated versions of the one file, which gave the final digital composite a cinematic feel as though the director of photography on a big Hollywood movie had lit it with movie lights. Nonetheless it retained the prize because, although it had been enhanced, no pixels had been removed or added.

The meaning of the words ‘photographic manipulation’ is shifting before our eyes and growing in complexity. Today’s digital cameras don’t take pictures, they record data.

In this new imaging logic, the journey from scene to image is a continuity where image manipulation can feedback into a scene’s ‘truth’.

Add to this the exponential proliferation of images online, the acceleration of their transmission, and their accumulation into vast data-bases and we are set for yet more fascinating recalibrations in photographic truth.

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