What is a photograph?

There are continuous discussions about digital manipulation and whether a digitally modified image still qualifies as a photograph. For example, Roger Overall recently wrote a column entitled "Photography vs. Image-making" for TOP that discussed digital image modifications in todays photography and the labeling of such images as photographs. The bone of contention was the selection of digitally generated images for two photography awards and the question was risen if it might be necessary to distinguish photographs that are taken in camera from images that comprise digitally created expressions and visions of the artist.
I think that these are very important questions because a photograph has an inherent "truth bias"; people expect a photograph to depict something that did exist somewhere sometimes. Therefore, at least I am disappointed if I find out that a photograph that I appreciated turns out to be a digital creation that was never discovered and observed as depicted. Do I have wrong expectations or may the label "photograph" be used misleadingly (maybe even on purpose)?

In order to reply to this question it may help to define what a photograph is. The word photography means drawing or painting with light and a photograph is a lasting recording of light (or other electromagnetic radiation) (see for example the wikipedia entry for photography).
At least for my understanding, this means that there must have been light at one time and that photography is a method to depict pieces (frames) of the real world. You may of course dispute even this statement and also consider the view through a lens or the recording on a two-dimensional surface an alteration of reality. According to this view, every single photograph represents an alteration of reality and it is impossible to draw a line in the continuum of more or less modification. I do not accept this rebuttal.

In my opinion, each photograph has content and qualities. The content is the actual subject that was photographed; a tree, a person, an animal a cloud or a complex landscape for example. For me, this is the YES or NO in photography; the bird that you wanted to photograph was either there or not (even Schrödinger's cat was either dead or alive and not both at the same time, despite quantum mechanics). As a viewer, I expect that the entire content of a photograph existed at the location and the moment where and when the shutter was released.
In contrast to content, the qualities of a photograph are subjective, vary on a continuous scale and reflect the vision of the photographer. The qualities are those characteristics that everybody sees differently and comprise the color, contrast, sharpness, exposure or saturation, to name a few. Every photographer, lens or accessory displays a subject slightly differently or emphasizes another aspect of the same subject. But there was a subject (which became the content) in the real world, outside of the photographers imagination, as the source of all of these aspects. Just because the grass is greener or the sky is bluer for some people does not mean that the grass and sky do not exist or are something else. And even if a glass is half empty for some and half full for others, there is still a glass with something in it.

I think that this leads to a rather simple definition for what a photograph is: For me, an image qualifies as a photograph if only the qualities were adjusted while the content has been left untouched after it was captured by the camera. I do not remove, copy, clone, turn or flip selected parts of a photograph or add elements from one photograph to another. However, I do alter and adjust, you may even say manipulate, the qualities of my photographs. Some of you may state that this view of mine is much too narrow and restrictive and that my definition of a photograph only fits documentary photography and excludes the art photography. Again, I do not agree.
First, the documentary aspect is inherently and inseparably linked to photography. Second, for me the art in photography does not lie in the subject, but in the eye of the capturer and her or his ability to translate a real-world discovery into a two-dimensional image. For me, the goal and the challenge is not to create an amazing illustration no matter how, but to find and photograph something in the real world in a way that results in an amazing photograph. Digitally manipulating the content of my photographs would be cheating for me and therefore completely defy my goals and values.

I would like to emphasize that this is my view that I hold because anything else would betray my values. I think that everybody has to decide for her- or himself what to alter and what to leave untouched and I acknowledge everybody's freedom to set her or his rules. In many ways it is a question about means and ends.
However, I think that it is important to clearly and unmistakably state if the content of a photograph/illustration has been altered (and to clearly label a depiction whose content has been modified as a digital illustration and not as a photograph; an interesting article on this topic and on the following example is here). A very famous example is this section from the introduction in the book Migrations by Art Wolfe, but unfortunately the exact images whose content has been modified are not revealed:
".... I often had to pass over photographs because in a picture of masses of animals invariably one would be wandering in the wrong direction, thereby disrupting the pattern I was trying to achieve. Today, the ability to digitally alter this disruption is at hand. For the first time in Migrations, I have embraced this technology, taking the art of the camera to its limits. Since this is an art book and not a treatise on natural history, I find the use of digitalization perfectly acceptable, and in a small percentage of the photographs I have enhanced the patterns of animals much as a painter would do on a canvas."

The front cover of Migrations with digitally cloned zebras and other, less controversial books from the oeuvre of Art Wolfe.

It is obvious that Mr. Wolfe and I have different values and definitions of a photograph. Nevertheless, I own several of his books and I appreciate many photographs which I believe (hope?) have not been enhanced in any way as described above. However, I was (and still am) disappointed when I read the cited passage in the introduction of Migrations. There are several statements in that paragraph that disturb me, but I  cannot deny myself the comment that I have never read before that cameras may be somehow limited because they lack the function to selectively flip or copy pieces of a frame and do not automatically correct a scene in order to create the picture the photographer had in mind.

2011/10/26 by Florian Freimoser
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