All Photographs Lie

These days most people are familiar with the term "Photoshopped" (sometimes just 'shopped). Use of the term is often a judgment about the perceived manipulation of visual reality in a photograph.  When I was growing up, I used to hear people talk about "trick photography." Back then, as now, the general public often regarded such practices with a degree of suspicion. Nobody likes to feel like they've been fooled.

Of course manipulating photographs has a history almost as long as photography itself, far predating personal computers and the digital wizardry more familiar to people today.  It was once common in the early days of film for photographers to insert a properly exposed sky with clouds into a print where properly exposing a scene for the landscape rendered the sky a featureless white.

Retail giant Target recently gained unwanted attention for publishing some poorly Photoshopped images of models in bathing suits.  And plenty of attention has been given to the ways that photos of female celebrities in particular are manipulated to appear more youthful or thinner in magazines than they are in real life.  There's been a popular backlash against this practice in recent years, with various campaigns promoting awareness that "real women" don't look like their airbrushed, liquified counterparts in print.

I shot this photo in 2012, using a vintage camera made circa 1938.  The choice of the old truck as the subject, the soft focus and use of black & white film all help cultivate a feeling of age.  By shooting from a low vantage point, I made the truck stand out dramatically in front of the restaurant.  And that's before I even brought it into Photoshop.

While Photoshopped images get their fair share of criticism (and sometimes deservedly so), the truth is that all photographs manipulate reality at some level.  Even when a photo accurately records the general appearance of a person, place or thing there is a degree of editorial control exerted by the photographer at the moment that photo is made.  

Some factors impacting the outcome are determined by the photographer at the moment the photo is taken:

  • Location from which the photo is shot
  • Framing that excludes undesirable elements (power lines, signage, bystanders, or even ugly shoes)
  • Shooting from a low vantage point versus a high one
  • Choice of lens
  • Using black & white or color
  • Exposure settings that can change the mood (high-key versus low-key)
  • Techniques like panning that blur the background in camera

None of the above require Photoshop or special darkroom techniques, yet by making choices like these the photographer can greatly alter the way the subject is perceived by viewers.  The mood can go from cheerful to foreboding with a few well-chosen adjustments.  A human subject might be portrayed as imposing, ridiculous or vulnerable depending on the choice of angle and lens - no digital tomfoolery required!

Photoshop and other image editing software can be used to deceive the viewer, whether it's a product made to be appear bigger / better than the real thing, or for more sinister military propaganda purposes.   But most people understand that editing has beneficial and innocuous uses; removing skin blemishes, whitening teeth, improving contrast and other artistic choices often enhance a photo in ways that are flattering to the subject.  

In summary, there's no such thing as a photo that doesn't "lie" in its selective representation of reality.  Even from the moment before we click the shutter, we have started making a series of choices that will impact the final image.