Why photographic purism makes no sense in the digital age

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Some photographers subscribe to a philosophy of modern photographic purism, frowning upon any use of post-processing techniques and seeing them as a form of cheating. This idea was popularised popularised in the 1930s but few photographers today subscribe to the movement’s ideals of ridding one’s work of “qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form”. Today’s photographic purists have no such ambitions; conversely, they often strive to create highly artistic photographs using only their camera (and physical accessories such as lights and filters) and they extent to which they consider themselves successful correlates directly to the extent to which their results appear to have been created through post-processing when in reality they have been achieved in camera. There are many legitimate reasons not to post-process your digital photographs but the popular notion that all forms of post-processing are somehow inauthentic is deeply misguided.

Before the 1930s, pictorialism was the dominant style of photography, characterised by the intentional manipulation of the scene for artistic effect either in the camera (for example by using soft focus or shallow depth of field) or in the film development process using a combination of photographic paper choice, chemical processes and brush effects to create a stylised print. Group f/64, a self-styled group of like-minded photographers that included Ansel Adams formed in 1932 in reaction to pictorialism and advocated a style known as straight photography. In their manifesto, straight photography is defined as “possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form”.

Group f/64 was concerned that photography as an artistic medium was being harmed by popular photographers of the time who were applying techniques derived from other artistic mediums (principally painting) to the photographic form and in a sense, robbing the public of the opportunity to see photographic subjects as they truly are, which was the promise of the photographic medium and arguably still quite a novel concept back then. These early photographic purists were not especially concerned with manipulation (Ansel Adams himself was a pioneer of the dodge and burn technique for selectively adjusting exposure in a photographic print) but they were concerned with creating results that closely resembled the scene as viewed through the human eye. In other words they were principally concerned with style rather than technique.

Modern photographic purists have inverted these concerns. They are generally not concerned with style, so long as the technique used did not include the use of software on a computer. Purists typically have no issue with the use of artificial lighting, lens filters or choice of settings on the camera itself. Post-processing pre-dates computers as we have seen, but there were limits to what could be achieved in the dark room. With today’s software, no such limits exist; photographs can be changed beyond recognition in software, and with enough skill they can even be created in software from scratch. It appears to be this absence of limitations that most offends purists, since with software it becomes impossible to determine to what extent the photographer actually created the scene using a computer. I see two problems with this line of thinking.

Firstly, drawing a line between the camera and software is somewhat arbitrary when you consider that all modern cameras have a built in computer. When you press the shutter on a modern camera, the electronic sensor captures light and the picture processing engine in the camera interprets that signal according to computer settings chosen by the photographer (shooting mode, white balance, gradation, colour space and so on) to create a finished JPEG image (or if you shoot in RAW mode, the RAW converter completes this process). Even if you leave every setting in it’s default state, you have chosen to do so and the camera reacts accordingly. In terms of outcomes there is absolutely no difference if you make a choice of white balance (for example) before you press the shutter, or if you choose to defer that choice to a later date – it is still a choice made by the photographer.

Secondly, the notion that the image created in camera when the shutter is pressed is somehow a truthful representation of the scene is misplaced. Cameras do not simply record reality; they interpret the scene according to settings controlled by the photographer. Take colour for example. When you get right down to the physics of it, colour is an abstraction – it is the brain’s way of interpreting different frequencies of light waves reflected from an object onto the retina. The colour of an object as perceived by the human eye changes significantly according to the intensity and temperature of the light illuminating the object, distance, angle of view, air quality and any number of other factors. Changing the colour saturation of a photograph in software does not mean you are changing away from how the subject actually is, it means you are changing how the camera interpreted the subject after the fact. It may very well be that you are changing the camera’s interpretation be more similar to the interpretation of the human eye.

If you accept the premise that all photography is interpretation of reality then the debate on photographic purism swings towards the extent to which a photograph mimics the interpretation of the human eye. This variety of purism is closer to the views of Group f/64 in the 1930s as it is concerned with results rather than technique. I refer to this variety of purism as photographic realism, and it manifests in a disdain for things such as the flowing water effect created by long exposure times, smoothing of skin blemishes in portraiture and removal of unwanted objects in a scene. This idea, whilst somewhat more logical than a disdain for software processing, still suffers from an equally intractable problem: cameras are inherently different from the human eye.

The human eye has a fixed focal length equivalent to 50mm on a full frame camera, so any other focal length you might choose will distort perspective from the point of view of a human observer. The human eye can see a higher dynamic range than a camera – typically about 9 stops of light to the camera’s 5 stops, and the human eye can resolve detail to approximately 52 megapixels but only within a narrow area in the centre of focus. Perhaps most importantly though, the eye sees a moving world and a stills camera by definition freezes the scene.

Because of these differences a camera can never truly interpret a scene in the same way as the human eye, but it is obviously possible for a photograph to be more or less similar to it. The issue then becomes simply a matter of taste. The motion blur effect for example is an obvious deviation from what the human eye actually sees at a given moment, but arguably provides a better representation of the experience of motion than a perfectly frozen image. Other effects intentionally depart from human experience for artistic effect, and the results will always be subject to taste in those cases.

There are obviously some specific scenarios in which intentional manipulation of a photograph is controversial (glamour photography in magazines) or downright unethical (journalism, legal evidence) but in all but these rarest of cases there is nothing inherently wrong with using software refine a photograph according to one’s artistic intention. Some photographers can create superb work in-camera and do almost no post-processing because they can work faster by putting more effort into the shoot and less into the software process. Others simply have no interest in using software to manipulate their work and can achieve acceptable results without it, and still others dislike the results of heavily post processing their own photographs as a matter of personal taste. These are all perfectly valid reasons to shun the post-processing process. What I find objectionable is when a photographer who looks down their nose at their peers who use post-processing techniques and considers them inferior artists. Whatever combination of techniques is used to create an image, if the end result appreciated by it’s intended audience then that is what matters.

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