Art and Photography – where should the boundary be?

The debate about how far you can go in changing a photograph in post processing, how much of a finished image must be photographic in content and what plug-ins and filters can be used legitimately in photographic competitions/exhibitions, has been simmering or sometimes raging for almost two decades, ever since some of us had begun to get into digital imaging. Today the debate seems to be getting more acrimonious than ever before in some photo clubs.

I remember saying, after perhaps a bit more wine than I should have consumed, at the opening of a club exhibition a few years back that, in my view, photography cannot easily be separated into what is pure photography and what is created art from photographic originals. I clumsily tried to explain that I think it is a continuum.

Imagine a horizontal line. At one end is documentary photography i.e. the kind of photography where truth should prevail, for example, sport, nature, architectural, photojournalism, record photography to name a few genres. Some would argue that such images should not be edited at all (like the transparency that left the camera and came back in a mount direct from Kodak).

However, these advocates of purity will occasionally go on to add “except for cropping and maybe a bit of dodging and burning and correcting the verticals and removing blemishes…and perhaps “tone-mapping is OK, so long as it doesn’t go too far.” (What is “too far”?). But in documentary photography, if there is something that is intrusive and not essential to the truth of the image, e.g. a bit of litter on the floor, is it OK to edit it out?. I personally think it’s fine to do that. A photograph of a church interior is not made more truthful by leaving in an object that is not normally there and is incidental to the composition. Those who admired fine architectural photography do not often stop to reflect that some of the finest architectural photographers, at the height of the chemical processing era, had composited separate negatives together each exposed correctly for the interior and the windows. Not cheating back then, so why cheating now?

At the other end of the continuum is the picture that has been completely created in the computer without any photographic content, where the mind can run free and create fantastical and surreal imagery to invite the viewer to suspend reality and join us in the fantasy world of the creator’s imagination.

In travelling from one end of the continuum to the other, all types of images will be encountered, from highly edited and altered single images, through montages and pictures that are part photographic and part created in the computer. Can a line be drawn somewhere along that continuum? I find it difficult to do that,  even impossible.

Putting my own thoughts here, I think simply that, in a photographic competition, something in the image must have at least started as a photograph…but how much, you might ask? 100%, 50%, 20%, 5%, 0.01%. Who is to say? How much does it matter? How could it be measured? So, is it fair to simply say that “some photographic content must be recognisable in the finished image”…then, should it be at the discretion of the entrant? should we write rules to define this (or try to)? or should we leave it to the judges to decide? Probably all three come into it, but if it’s written in the rules, don’t expect to be able to police it…you won’t be able to in the vast majority of cases.

Hey STOP STOP!!! My head hurts!!! Too many questions!

But even more questions…how much may we rely on plug-ins…to create the effects that we want to enhance our work? These days there are so many plug-ins, filters and brushes that can help us to make almost anything that our creative minds can conceive. Is it OK to use the filters and brushes that come installed with our photo-editor, lets assume PhotoShop for argument’s sake. Most people would say “yes, of course”. What about something like Nik filters – I’ve never tried them but I’ve seen the effects…again, why not?

But what about the free and commercial PhotoShop brushes that you can download or buy on CD…some are created from high resolution scans or artwork created by somebody else, so is it fair to use them? Now the questions are getting a bit more difficult and it’s getting hard again to draw a line.

And what about fancy photographic edges that are essentially clip art created by someone else. What about photo textures that somebody else has photographed and sold on a CD or given away on a web site. What about images created by somebody else and given away with photo-magazines? What about photographing somebody else’s work and then over-painting it in PhotoShop? No, please really do STOP now. It’s going a bit too far, even for me and we start opening that can of worms called plagiarism.

And another thing, a slight rant from me, actually…I really hate it when competition organisers try to separate traditional and creative work in pictorial sections. Fine for nature, I understand what I can and can’t do. But what about the pictorial sections? Quite a lot of my own work recently, has been created from several photographs, but in many cases I try to make the composite work look “natural”. So when competition rules try to separate traditional (largely un-manipulated) work from creative, I find my images often don’t fit into either category. A composite doesn’t fit the “traditional” section rules and the creative section is clearly stated to be for the overtly creative and fantasy pictures, where mine may look too natural to sit comfortably there. So that’s me throwing my rattle out of the pram!

© Christine Widdall First Published: 27 July 2012