Purity in Photography

I couldn’t help follow up on my last article with this. I read a photographer’s blog who was wringing his hands about “fake” images. In his plea for purity in photography he went so far as to coin a new term: “PhoTImagery” (the strange capitalism is his). He proposes the term to refer to any image that was not an absolute literal representation of a real scene.

What is purity in photography?

The argument presented was that “pure” photography – what he terms the purist photographer – consists of images made on film and processed in a wet darkroom. The end product is a photograph.

A couple of questions occur to me. For one, why stop at film? Why not define pure photography as coating wet plates in the field before exposing them? That predates film and is even more basic. The practitioner of this has to be very determined and willing to suffer for his art. That brings even more asceticism and rigor to the practice.

The second question is brought up by his assertion that the pure photographer can use “all possible techniques” in the chemical darkroom and still be acceptable. Editing negatives to remove distractions and compositing images has been done almost since the beginning of photography. Is that OK as long is it is done with film and chemicals? What would a photographer have to do to make it no longer “pure”? It is interesting that he does not count multiple exposures against the purity of an image.

Can digital imaging be pure?

The next step in the continuum he describes is the “photographer”. This is a person who does digital imaging, BUT does nothing to alter the image materially. This person is only called a “photographer”. He seems to have lost the sanction of purity, since he is not using a pristine chemical process. The end product here is still a photography, but I guess it is potentially tainted.

If you edit out distractions or (gasp) change the sky it is no longer a real photograph. Apparently only the actual scene as shot, with no material changes, is worthy to be presented as art. Of course, like in any legalistic argument, there will be long and heated debate about what constitutes a “material” change. And who is certifying this? Do we have to submit our images to the Board of Photographic Purity before publishing them?

Not real art?

Finally Mr. Gordon creates the term PhoTImigery to describe any image that was not created and processed entirely by old school chemical methods, or was composited or heavily manipulated. He labels these manipulated images as deceptive and not true photography.

Happily, he allows that art might want to do these things, but that the use of them must be disclosed. If not disclosed he claims it to be deceptive and wrong.

I thought this argument was over a couple of years after digital imaging became really practical. Unless you are a photojournalist it should be assumed that ALL images are manipulated. This is not dishonest unless you are presenting it to your viewers as depicting reality.

The disconnect

Herein lies the disconnect, I think. Mr. Gordon wants to assume that all photographs are a faithful and literal depiction of reality unless disclosed as otherwise. It seems much safer to assume that all photographs are manipulated freely unless it is stated otherwise.

We have long moved past the point where the only purpose of photography is to record the world as it literally is. There are billions of images made every day. Reality is overused. A photographer wanting to be heard among all the noise must present his personal vision of a scene. Or create a scene that may not have existed.

Is this dishonest? No, it is art. Should it be “disclosed” as not real? No, no more than a Picasso painting should be labeled as “not real”. None of my images, no matter how they are created or manipulated, are fake. They are my artistic work.

By the way, the image with this article is not literal reality. 🙂 Are all my images this heavily processed? No, not even most of them. But I feel free to do what I want with my pixels.

The argument of purity makes an assumption of the intent and very purpose of photography. I refuse to be bound by someone else’s assumptions. I will follow my own path. Let me state right now to never assume any of my images are literal truth unless I tell you that they are.

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