It has become fairly obvious that lately that our understanding of what photography is and does has not quite caught up with, well, what it is and does. A wonderful case in point is the attempt to differentiate between “photographs” and “photo illustrations”. What is the difference? When does a photograph become a “photo illustration”? If you think the answer is so simple keep reading. I don’t think it is.
Let’s first get the obvious out of the way. Of course, any photograph is based on a set of choices made by a photographer (whether or not the photographer is aware of that or whether he or she had the choice is irrelevant). What type or camera do you use (film versus digital, and if film what kind of film, black and white or colour)? What lens do use (telephoto, macro, etc.)? How do you frame the shots? These are all choices already made, which one could interpret as pointing towards that any photo really is not a depiction of reality (whatever that might actually be). Thing is, though, first of all this argument is kind of trivial. Of course, you could now pick your favourite contemporary French philosopher and spend hours pouring over arcane theoretical texts - I don’t think there’s much (if anything) to be gained from that, though.
My approach to all these choices is the following: The set of choices defines why photographs by photographer AB look different from those of photographer BC. In the context of commissions, as far as I know photographers get hired (in part) because the editors know the kind of photography they need for whatever it is they want to put it next to. Of course, that’s a choice, but I am hesitant to infer much from this. I want to be pragmatic in that sense, because I just don’t have the time to have seemingly profound arguments about metaphysics.
OK, now that we have that out of the way, we can talk about the real issue of this post. Let’s assume that one wanted to differentiate between “photographs” and “photo illustrations”, for whatever sake. We could assume that we’re running a newspaper, say, which happens to publish a magazine; and we somehow feel that we need to tell our readers that some of the images are in fact “photographs”, i.e. real, whereas others are “photo illustrations”, i.e. photographs which have been manipulated, so they’re not necessarily as real.
How would we do that? Obviously, we would need criteria for these manipulations. Unfortunately, the simplest approach - “a photo is only a photo if there is no manipulation” - won’t work, since photographs have always been manipulated. Photographs need to be spotted, their exposure might be a tad off, so that needs to be corrected, the contrast might be too high or too low… In the past, people used to do that kind of work in the dark room; these days, many people use Photoshop for that. If you use Photoshop to fix the contrast you’re clearly digitally manipulating an image - but fixing the contrast can’t really be what we want to think of as a manipulation, do we? Or maybe too much fixing? But then how much?
We’re in trouble now, aren’t we? Because if we want to define the difference between a “photograph” and a “photo illustration” we need to define the amount of manipulation we will allow. Needless to say, if we were totally pragmatic we’d just call every image a “photo illustration” and be done with it. But then we might be worried that we would lose credibility as a newspaper. So let’s assume we don’t want to do that. How do we go about this?
What we have to do is to define the amount of manipulation that is allowed for a photograph to remain a photograph, or, phrased slightly differently, the amount of manipulation beyond which a photograph becomes a photo illustration. And we better do it well!
Instead of proposing something I thought I’d do it the other way around, namely by giving some examples and then asking about the threshold. This is because I think the idea that you can neatly divide images into photographs and photo illustrations is fundamentally flawed, even if you make assume that you have to make such a distinction. Another way of saying this is that once you make a distinction - following some set of rules that you have to come up with - you will always run into trouble, because there will always be a case where your rules fall apart. The following examples (which I will call cases) might make it clear why I am saying that (I’m throwing in some red herrings btw). Of course, one could think of many other cases (feel free to email me some, I’m happy to add them).
To make this clear: If you want to differentiate between “photographs” and “photo illustrations” you need clear answers for each and every one of these cases, and, what is more, your answers have to be compatible with each other.
Of course, this blog is mostly concerned with what is usually called “fine-art photography”, and in that context, none of the following cases would actually be a problem. What we have to realize is that even in the fine-art context, photographer will often not mention some of the tricks they do to get to their final images. It seems clear, though, that when you do something to work on your image don’t tell people that your images are not manipulated - even if you think that the manipulations do not change what you think of as the essence of what you want to show.
Anyway, here we go:
Case 1: You hire photographer AB1 to take portraits. AB takes photographs with an 8x10 camera, and for each subject she2 produces two exposures. In one image, she notices that while the composition is perfect, the face of the subject is very slightly out of focus. The other exposure has the face in focus (and the sitter uses the exact same facial expression), but the composition is off3. So AB decides to copy the face from the second image into the first image to produce a portrait that has both perfect composition and the sitter in focus. AB performed only very minor changes of contrast, exposure, etc. and left a very prominent and ugly pimple on the sitters forehead in place. Is the resulting portrait a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 2: You hire photographer BC to take portraits. BC notices that one of his subjects has a very prominent pimple. BC knows the person in question, and in particular he knows that the week before, when he met the person in a social context, his sitter did not have that problem. In fact, BC knows his sitter only without the pimple, but life being life, sometimes a pimple appears, and that’s a bad time for a portrait. But the commission can’t wait a week for the pimple to disappear. So BC decides to use Photoshop to remove the pimple from the portrait. Is the resulting portrait a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 3: You hire photographer CD to take photographs of landscapes. When processing her images, CD notices that in one image the wind made a tree move, and right in the corner of one of the frames, there are some blurry branches, barely noticeable, but still very distracting (especially once you’ve noticed them). So CD decides to use Photoshop to remove the branches. Is the resulting photograph a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 4: You hire photographer DE4 to take environmental portraits. DE uses a b/w film camera. In the dark room, DE discovers a distracting second person in one of the photographs. Seeing the negatives and an early test print, DE realizes that he can easily make that second person disappear by boosting the contrast a little bit (not much actually). The final image DE submits only shows one person. Is the resulting portrait a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 4b: You hire photographer DE4 to take environmental portraits. DE uses a b/w film camera. In the dark room, DE discovers a distracting second person in one of the photographs. Seeing the negatives and an early test print, DE realizes that he can easily make that second person disappear by boosting the contrast quite a bit. The final image DE submits - a very stunning image with a face very visible against a pitch-black background - only shows one person. Is the resulting portrait a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 5: You hire photographer EF4 to take portraits. DL takes photographs using a 4x5 camera. In one of the photographs, EF notices that her subject’s hand somewhat prominently in the foreground. EF decides the had distracts from the portrait, so she removes the hand. Is the resulting portrait a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 6: You hire photographer FG5 to take portraits. FG takes portraits with a camera that he built himself. Using a mechanism that FG is not willing to explain and/or reveal, FG’s camera uses instant sheet film, and it measures “the field” around the subjects and exposes those on top of the portraits in camera. The resulting photographs are not processed at all after the instant film has been peeled apart, but they don’t look like anything anybody would see if she or he was in the studio while the photograph was taken. Is the resulting portrait a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 7: You hire photographer GH to take photographs of architectural interiors. GH notices that her assistant managed to forget (happens all the time with that assistant!) one of the light meters on one of the tables in the background of one of the photographs (barely visible, but once you see it, you just notice), so GH decides to use Photoshop to remove the light meter from the photograph. Is the resulting photo a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 7b: You hire photographer GH to take photographs of architectural interiors. GH notices that in one of the photos she did not work with her view camera properly, so some of the image elements are just slightly askew. GH decides to correct the problem for the final print. Is the resulting photo a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 7c: You hire photographer GH to take photographs of architectural interiors. GH notices that in one of the photos one of the hallways is a bit dark, so she decides to modify just that section using Photoshop. In the final print, the hallway shows a lot more detail - her assistant says now it looks good, even though being there it didn’t look like that. Is the resulting photo a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 7d: You hire photographer GH to take photographs of architectural interiors. GH notices that in one of the photos one of the hallways is awfully dark, so she decides to modify just that section using Photoshop. In the final print, the hallway shows a lot more detail - her assistant says now it looks maybe a bit too bright, but GH doesn’t think so. Is the resulting photo a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 8: You hire photographer HI to take photographs of a G8 meeting. HI happily takes many photographs and is especially excited about seeing two world leaders stand next to each other at the buffet table. Unfortunately, it takes HI just that split-second too long to take a picture, so in the image he gets the two world leaders have moved just a tad apart while miraculously keeping the same poses (this can be confirmed by looking at TV footage from the event). So HI decides to used Photoshop to move the two world leaders to their original positions. It’s not much of a change in terms of the image, but it’s quite the effect (as is very clear from the TV footage). Is the resulting photo a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 9: You hire photographer IJ to take photographs of a big human-rights demonstration. One of the images shows a member of the riot police standing right next to (and looking very menacingly at) a demonstrator. Having been there, IJ knows, however, that at the actual demonstration, the two persons stood several feet apart and in fact did not even notice each other. Is the resulting photo a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 9b: You hire photographer IJ to take photographs of a big human-rights demonstration. There isn’t much going on at the demonstration, so what with IJ being the smooth talker she is she asks one of the riot police members to move over just a tad. That way, IJ gets a photograph that shows the member of the riot police standing right next to (and looking very menacingly at) a demonstrator. Is the resulting photo a photograph or a photo illustration?
Case 10: You hire photographer JK to take photograph of food produced at some restaurant. Unfortunately, setting up the camera and composing everything etc. takes so much time that some of the food has lost its luster, so JK tells his assistant to apply hair spray to the food to make it look as delicious as it looked when the restaurant delivered it6. Is the resulting photo a photograph or a photo illustration?
1 - These and all following initials refer to fictional photographers, even though the actual outline of the cases might be based on real photography.
2 - In order to avoid using “she or he” or “s/he”, in these cases I’m alternating “he” and “she”.
3 - Lest you argue about what “perfect” composition means (it’s irrelevant for my argument) you can also think of the second exposure as having the half the assistant in part of the frame - or anything else that would make that second image unusable as is.
4 - This is a semi-real case, transplanting photography from the past into today’s world, with some modifications.
5 - This is a semi-real case.
6 - Actual food photographers will clearly notice I have no idea how this kind of photography works, but how you make food look good is besides the point here.