The third rail of photography

Every time someone messes with a photo and gets caught telling a visual fib it seems to re-ignite the debate about digital manipulation. Most recently a Chinese photographer was caught touching the third rail of photography.

A Chinese photographer (see WSJ Feb.22, 2008 p1A) has combined two images, one showing the new, $4 billion Qinghai-Xizang train and the other, Tibetan antelope galloping through the tundra. By combining these two images the photo depicts an alpine wilderness undisturbed by the shiny, high altitude train with the pressurized cabins.

The photo ran in newspapers first then won an award and was exhibited publicly. All hell broke loose when a curious student began to notice the footprints of Photoshop. Now the photographer has fallen on his tripod and gone to that place disgraced shooters go, presumed never to be heard from again.

I’m pretty familiar with the arguments about digital manipulation from a photographer’s perspective. But after seeing this story I wondered what other people might be thinking…photographic evidence in the courtroom for example.

There’re some interesting observations on attorney Rod McCarvel’s website

Basically he says that although the photographic print looks pretty much the way it always has the fundamental process of creating it could not have changed more radically in the last few years. In the beginning, the expectation was that a scene had to exist somewhere if it was depicted in a photograph. Compared to the more subjective painting or drawing the photograph was perceived to be immune from interpretation. But with the advent of digital imaging technology, photography is much closer to the subjective painting and drawing because a scene doesn’t have to exist to be represented in a photo.

So if you take this argument into, say, the world of photojournalism photographers are now sent out to “draw and paint” the world as it is. Most journalists will try to remain objective but their photographic reportage will be subjected to more and more interpretation.

Escalating the discussion is the continued advent of user-friendly, image manipulating technology. People in the photography business have squabbling about this for the last decade but the biggest change is that consumers of imagery are beginning to see how easy it is to manipulate images by experiencing it themselves. This affects how they view all photographs.

I predict consumers of photography will grow more skeptical of the images they see. The more amazing the images appear, the more skeptical viewers will be.

But what’s really bothering me is that I seemed to have missed the part about the Chinese starting to worry about propaganda.



~ by keithphilpott on March 18, 2008.

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