Cheating in photography – does it exist?

In a recent vlog the British landscape photographer Gary Gough presented images of boat wrecks which did not represent the real scene he was looking at when shooting. Since the background was not to his liking he used two photographs shot in different directions and combined them in post into ideal composites of foreground, horizontal lines and sky. Looking at the final images you couldn’t tell whether these were “real scenes” or collages made of more than one photograph and Gary was asking the viewers whether they think “this is art or (cheating) photography”. The overwhelming majority of online comments admired Gary’s post processing wizardry and clearly said that this is art. And Gary rightly concluded that being honest with the viewer and explain how the images came into being is key to avoid cheating in photography.

I was thinking about it for some time and wondered whether cheating does exist at all in photography? To begin with, a photograph is a 2D representation of a 3D landscape or object and therefore it is not the real scene. It is already an artistic transformation in itself. However, a two-dimensional print to a large degree can transport our three-dimensional human perception of the scene, but this totally depends on the skills of the photographer. If we now use “cheating” in a photography context, the question is where exactly does it begin? Is the camera already cheating, because its inability of capturing 3D? Or, to go a step further, was Ansel Adams cheating when he burned the sky of Moonrise almost to black to add more drama to the image? What about Man Ray’s “solarized” photographs? And think of the digitally reworked large scale images of Andreas Gursky? Did these photographers all cheat, because they kind of twisted reality in post-processing, either in the darkroom or in the computer?

Since the very first known camera photograph by Nicéphore Niépce people have tested the limits of photography and manipulated e.g. cameras, negatives, prints, and digital files to creatively form images to their liking, to match their thoughts and mood, to express their feelings or to carry certain messages. This is a creative process and definitely results in art. Photography translates as “drawing with light”. Thus, no definition with regard to content is given. What is called a photograph does not have to reflect or represent reality. The photographer uses cameras, enlargers, computers etc. as tools to create an image just like a painter with a brush and a palette. The trap we fall into here lies in the very nature of a photographic image itself. Since a camera is basically able to capture a realistic image of the scene in front of us, we tend to think of a photograph as objective. The camera is making it without us interfering with the process. In contrast, a painter has to translate the subject from his personal optic impression into choice of color and stroke of the brush using his brain as a filter. This process is regarded as subjective, hence the artsy result. But photographic images are not objective at all. Only the photographer sees a composition and points the camera into the right direction. Without this highly subjective brain-driven process photographic images would not exist at all.

But we have to reflect on this also from a different angle. This has to do with the use of images as a carrier of information as in reportages or news. No medium is able to capture actual events and implicit messages better than photography (or videography), impressively demonstrated during the heydays of reportage and magazine photography by many well-known big names in the photographic realm …and even scaled by mobile phone photographs today. Here, we rely on authentic images to form a personal opinion about the world around us. If we cannot rely on authenticity of news images for instance, we are completely lost. Images are just too powerful an influencer of people’s opinion that “objectivity” is key and manipulation should not be tolerated. But…careful…the trap is lurking around the corner again. As said above, it’s not the camera but the person holding it, who captures the photos. This means that every image shot by a photo reporter is the result of her identifying a subject or a composition worth shooting and using her professional mindset and skills to create a representation of the reality. In other words: Looking at news images means nothing but looking through the viewfinder with the eyes of the photo reporter who shot the image. And this again can be highly subjective.

So, what is it that makes photographic images so strong, so persuasive or even manipulative, if we look at them? I think it has to do with human psychology. Usually, photographs are easy to relate to. We are fascinated by the photographer’s skill, by the vibrant colors, or by the well-composed image. We are moved by the sadness of the captured scene or the joy expressed in faces. And ever so often we are kind of dragged into the image, because something in it reminds us of moments in our own lives. The first impression a photograph produces in our heads is usually an emotional one, which already channels our mind towards “like” or “dislike”. We may not be able to immediately nail it down as to why we sense it this way and not the other, but there is certainly something like a gut feeling. And this brings me back to Gary and his question whether we see his composite images as art or as photographic cheating. When I looked at his final images the first question popping up in my mind was: would I hang one of those images on my wall? Gut decision…probably not, since their overall style is not exactly what I personally fancy as photographs. You see? The decision whether I like it or not, has nothing to do with the fact that they are composites. And even if I knew they were representing real scenes, my gut feeling wouldn’t change. Gary’s images are representations of his creativity, skillfully photographed and processed and therefore, beyond doubt, a piece of art and photography at the same time. But whether people like it or not – and a lot do according to the numerous online comments on his vlog –  is a completely different matter.

To watch Gary’s vlog I am referring to, please click here.

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