Exercise 1.5 – The manipulated image (P.44)

Read the section entitled ‘The Real and the Digital’ in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75. You’ll find this on the student website.
Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.

Wells’ book was published nearly ten years ago and I think that the change in use of digitally imagery since 2009 means that amongst the general population there is a recognition that images that we see in our daily lives, the majority of which will be online, do not represent the truth but more accurately a version of it.

Although historically there has been awareness that images purported as being a true record of events had been altered, perhaps most famously images of Stalin as shown below, for most people photographs were ‘snaps’ they has taken themselves or pictures of events seen in reliable sources such as newspapers. They could therefore be relied on as being a true record of the events they portrayed.

The rise of digital technology and mobile phone photography has resulted in a physical change in how we see images. The change from a negative to a digital file means that the source is no longer a tangible item that we can physically examine but rather an abstract concept whose authenticity it is difficult to establish. Along with the rise of digital imagery has been the development of the digital darkroom. Whilst most people will not have used Photoshop, the use of the phrase about an image ‘it’s been photoshopped’ is widely understood to denote that an image has been altered, normally to improve the presentation. What is probably not as well understood is that many of the tools available in Photoshop; cropping, dodging, burning, etc. are digital versions of tools that were used by photographers in an analogue environment when photographs were considered to be more truthful.

Perhaps the greatest change in the view of the truthfulness of photography over the last ten years has been driven not by the advances in the technology but rather than the way in which we use it. As Campany noted in the 2003 extract quoted by Wells

It derives less from what it is technologically than what it is culturally. Photography is what we do with it.

Campany 2003

The advances in mobile photo photography and the development of social media in recent years have changed what we photograph. In addition to photographs of people and places there has been an explosion of ‘selfies’, self-portraits. As people have turned the camera towards themselves there has been a desire to enhance the version of themselves that they present to the world and so the willingness to alter images has increased. From filters on Instagram to sophisticated editing software available on mobile phones technology has changed the way see images and there is a greater recognition that photographs are not a simple record of events but rather a more nuanced and sometimes completely fictional record.

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