I can’t say I’m completely immune because I usually clean up my scans of film negatives to remove dust, hair and scratches using Photoshop, but there is something about an image caught on film that argues against altering the photograph.
Perhaps it’s the subliminal knowledge that the picture as captured by light and chemicals remains a relatively faithful representation of what came through my camera’s lens. Something that works against a permission to change. Today, many digital images captured in-camera have been run through the camera’s own embedded image processing software, straightening lines and removing vignetting to compensate for lens aberrations, altering color balances and applying sharpening. A whole pantheon of tweaks designed to produce a more pleasing result but one that is just that little bit further removed from the original.
Whatever, it’s become clear that cleaning up an image to remove elements that displease has become habitual for many. As revealed in my photo club critiques, the occasional photography exhibition scandal, and the perhaps futile exhortations of news organizations for unaltered images. Reuters will only accept in-camera jpgs now, rejecting the common technique of generating a jpg from a tweaked RAW original file. Even this is only half a solution, given rapidly expanding in-camera image manipulation capabilities.
Image alteration is not new. It’s been done since the earliest days of photography. Direct drawing on negatives, dodging, burning, and superimposing negatives on prints, these and many more techniques produced images quite different from what was originally captured. It’s a fallacy to believe that ‘Photoshopping’ began with Photoshop.
Nonetheless, the ease with which Photoshop and other image processing programs can alter images attracts use. It’s become common, and as is so often true of things that become conventional, it has become practically de rigeur to alter your digital images. Even if only to clean up those pesky sensor dust spots. Few things spark as much comment in my photo club critiques as an unaddressed dust spot in a bright blue sky. True, they are unsightly and certainly they are an artifact of the camera and not of the light that enters it, but they also represent a certain state of reality that transcends what is actually photographed and embraces the equipment used. I could say the same about dust, hairs and scratches on my film negatives. But I, like many others, do remove digital sensor dust spots just as I clean up my negative scans. I justify this by claiming that what I am repairing are defects introduced that interfere with the truth of the image I have collected. However, it’s impossible to refute the counterargument that my efforts make no positive difference to the truth of the image, rather they add a guessed component – guessed as defined by the computer algorithm that generates the result of, say, Photoshop’s Healing Brush tool – to the image. All the addition of this guessed component does is to make the image more harmoniously pleasing.
So what, you might ask. What difference does it really make? On the surface very little. But the simple fact that I am analyzing this process, questioning its ubiquity and value, has moved me away from a desire to change things more than absolutely necessary. I’ve stopped using lens correction software. I’ve stopped clone-stamping out those power lines that sometimes cross my skyline. I’ve stopped cloning out any detail that was originally there, but, by its lack of harmony with the original composition, screams out for removal. It’s neither correct nor incorrect to do this; it simply represents an aesthetic choice. One that feels right to me.
One that has turned me around so much that I now embrace those hitherto disdained power lines. Seek them out and marvel at their geometry and their transformation of the real world. They are beautiful.