Recently an article has appeared in severals place on the web that is based on a exhibition and story by Mia Fineman a curator of photography at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. It looks at the pat, mostly the Pictorialist dominated history of photography that began just before the beginning of the 20th century,but brings into question the use of Photoshop in this current digital era of photography.
FAKING IT: MANIPULATED PHOTOGRAPHY BEFORE PHOTOSHOP
“By tracing the history of manipulated photography from the earliest days of the medium to the release of Photoshop 1.0 in 1990, Mia Fineman offers a corrective to the dominant narrative of photography’s development, in which champions of photographic “purity,” such as Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, get all the glory, while devotees of manipulation, including Henry Peach Robinson, Edward Steichen, and John Heartfield, are treated as conspicuous anomalies. Among the techniques discussed on these pages—abundantly illustrated with works from an international array of public and private collections—are multiple exposure, combination printing, photomontage, composite portraiture, over-painting, hand coloring, and retouching. The resulting images are as diverse in style and motivation as they are in technique. Taking her argument beyond fine art into the realms of politics, journalism, fashion, entertainment, and advertising, Fineman demonstrates that the old adage “the camera does not lie” is one of photography’s great fictions.” Metropolitan Museum of Art book description on Amazon.com
MIA FINEMAN: Most of the earliest manipulated photographs were attempts to compensate for the new medium's technical limitations -- specifically, its inability to depict the world as it appears to the naked eye.
The idea for the exhibition grew out of a question that was posed at nearly every presentation on photography that I've given or attended in recent years: How has digital technology, especially image-processing software like Photoshop, changed photography's relationship to truth?
I discovered a connection between trick photography and stage magic, which was the most popular form of mass entertainment in the late 19th century. Stage magicians often performed illusions featuring decapitation and "talking heads," and this motif was quickly picked up by photographers, both professional and amateur.
Photographers have always used whatever technical means were available to them to create the pictures they wanted to create -- Photoshop is the latest tool. That said, I do think there's a tendency among some contemporary image-makers to overuse digital tools and effects -- but it's mostly a matter of taste. In the commercial world, especially in magazines and advertisements, digital retouchers sometimes get sloppy, but the general public has gotten very good at spotting telltale blunders like missing limbs or misaligned body parts, models with weirdly poreless skin, and errant shadows cast by absent objects.
WHAT MIA FINEMAN DOES NOT ESTABLISH: CAN ANY PHOTOGRAPH BE TRUE?
Most experienced photographers realize from working with the process that every photograph is a distortion of reality, it is never true to objective reality or for that matter to what we see with our eyes. And for that matter neither is human vision anything but another kind of manipulation of objective reality. We are all fooled by our own minds to believe what we have learned to be “true”.
Fortunately many photographers in the last 150 years of its history have also written about their ideas of what making a photograph is and should be. From soon after the beginning of the use of the process in England and France there has been a movement of enthusiasts to have photography accepted as one of the established arts. Fortunately many of these statements have been published in a single book: A PHOTOGRAPHIC VISION - Pictorial Photography, 1889 - 1923, edited by Peter C. Bunnell.
Although much of what was written by many, some of whom have images referenced by Mia Fineman, smacks of political ideology of one primary purpose, that photography becomes an accepted medium among the arts establishment. In that regard various techniques were promoted as being more or less art-like, while a few argued for using a technique that rendered images truer to the nature of the photographic process, Sadakichi Hartmann in particular. One statement in 1896 by Gertrude Kasebier however was more autobiographically candid, indicating that what is true to a photographers vision should not be subject to the styles of what is commercially successful. “The key to artistic photography is to work out your own thoughts, by yourselves. Imitation leads to certain disaster...... New ideas are always antagonized. Do not mind that. If a thing is good it will survive.”
The concluding 1923 section is edited by John Wallace Gillies after receiving letters from Clarence H. White, Dr. A D Chaffee, Edward Weston, Alexander P Milne and W H Porterfield as Statements by Pictorialists. Gilles comments leading into the series of letters. “In the Pictorial section of photography one can make almost any kind of statement he pleases, and some will nod sagely, ‘Yes‘ and others will disagree with great heat. It is right or wrong as it happens to strike the other fellow. There is nothing absolute, nothing settled. It is an art, or not an art as we please to have it. Stieglitz at present makes his pictures sharp and is ready to tell everybody that a fuzzy picture is not the thing. Clarence White likes his pictures softer, and has held to that view, which speaks well for his opinion. Steichen made them fuzzy years ago, and now cannot get them sharp enough. So what are we to think? Each one has something to say and each statement is different. One might think from this that Pictorial Photography must be an art, for we find the same conditions among painters, all wrangling about what is best. True it is, therefor, that photographers have all the indispositions of artists and, if that makes art we surely have it in photography.
By Edward Weston
“You ask me to write a short ms. on “Pictorial Photography,” in other words “illustrative photography,” for such is my understanding of the word pictorial. Well I cannot, for it has been years since I left the genre field, and anyhow there are so many painters well fitted to carry on this little by-product of literature. Forgive me, Gillies, for playing with words, but really, is not just “Photography” good or bad, significant without “Pictorial” or “Artistic” tacked on? .............
Mr. Weston, my very good friend and a man of impeccable honesty, has fallen in with words, written by gentlemen who use them to hide behind. With the exception of Sherwood Anderson and John Tenant, these gentlemen who talk glibly about logic of things, using photography as a blind, are all more or less lost in delusion and smoke a sort of mental pipe together when they produce their manuscripts.
THE HISTORY OF PICTORIALISM CONTINUED WELL AFTER 1923
In America, and where else, did an unusual talent from Hollywood become the modern popular leader of Pictorialism in William Mortensen. But after being Cecil B. DeMille’s still photographer his individuality and self-driven vision soon drove him out of the studio dictatorships to Laguna Beach where he set up a small studio and taught students, created his own photographic visions while writing books and articles in popular enthusiast magazines.
When I was still a photography student in Santa Barbara I drove down to Laguna Beach and visited with Mortensen. Some twenty years later, after his death, I was an editor at Petersen’s PhotoGraphic magazine and obtained an assignment to publish a retrospective of William Mortensen’s work in PhotoGraphic. I was helped by his widow and supported in this effort by the Photographic Society of America, as well as by several of his students from his years in Laguna Beach.
Since then in 1998 The Center for Creative Photography Arizona Board of Regents published William Mortensen, A REVIVAL. His vision was democratic and reflected in his own words, “the man whose interest is in the picture itself. He may seek his picture in many different fields: in landscapes, in character studies, in portraits, in still life, in the ‘pure’ representations of textures. He may pursue his pictures with a box camera, with a luxury model miniature, or with an eight-by-ten view camera.He may prefer straight contact prints, paper negatives, fresson, or bromoil transfers. But, when all is said and done, his basic interest is the picture itself. Not how it was secured, or what process was used in making it, or what it may accomplish; but simply and solely the picture.”
Although many professional photographers in their hire to others accept the vision of who has hired them, so manipulation if there is any is for the purposes of the vision a photographer is hired to produce; it is just a job to solve someone else’s problem in a way that satisfies their vision. Many of us who have made a living by being a hired photographer realize they are not creating their own vision, but one for someone else. Even if you are making portraits for someone sitting for your camera, the vision created by the camera is the subject’s vision, or you may find few who will recommend you to make a portrait of them. The images a professional photographer makes for himself these days, are referred to by them as ‘personal work’; and from the better known of them you will find expensive coffee-table books of this kind of visualization.
If you want to create photographs from your own personal vision, you must be a photographer who is working only for one’s self, no one else. I think this is reflected in what photographers say about themselves. The manipulation and retouching now, in many cases is not done by the photographer before release to the client, but usually afterwards by pre-press technicians and retouching specialists. Photographers are not ‘manipulating’ images to fool anyone else, unless of course they are part of a circus side-show or represented in YouTube, FaceBook or the like, seeking to go viral on the web. Manipulation of images to result in the best image you can imagine is not a dishonesty by most photographers, it is just a refinement of one’s own vision.
In my collection of books and magazines, mostly about photography, there is one, ‘VERUSCHKA’, Trans-figurations, by Vera Lehndorff and Holger Trulzsch 1986, done before Photoshop, involving every imaginable manipulation of the subject envisioned by both the model-artist Vera Lehndorff (Veruschka) and her partner Holger Trulzsch. Whose visions are they; are they both, or either Veruschka or the photographer Trulzsch. Not one or the other surely, but only they really know. If it is anything it is a truth that vision is as consistent as the subject and image are and can be from any human perspective.