Whilst researching the ethics of digital photography, I found an interesting article called ‘The ethics of digital manipulation’ by Astrophotographer, Jerry Lodriguss in which he discusses, not just the ethics of digitally enhancing images but the whole area of interpretation and the fact that it was common practice to change images long before Photoshop was invented.
Two examples are given, of photographs taken about 1917, which clearly had some manual intervention.
One picture was produced by two young girls to show what they claimed were fairies in their garden and there are apparently people today, who still believe this to be a true image. The other shows what purports to be a family photograph but in reality is a crude attempt at a composite image, where 3 members of the family seem to be floating in mid-air. It was apparently quite common for commercial photographers to produce photographs which showed a family group together when in fact they were not together when the photo (or photos) were taken.
Lodriguss goes on to compare ‘ethics’; where judgements are made about morals or right and wrong, and aesthetics which is about art, beauty, or taste; something pleasing to the eye. He argues that we, as photographers, have always been making choices which enables us to put our own interpretation on a scene or subject. Using different types of film will give different effects, as will the lens you choose, or the depth of field, or focal length, or long exposure and that in fact, photography freezes time whereas reality is continuous.
What I found really interesting about this article was the way that the author explained how far he could or would justify digital manipulation and at what point he felt the line would be crossed. As an astrophotographer his aim is to ‘share the beauty and wonder of the universe with others’ and so he feels that ‘the question is more about aesthetics than ethics’. In other words it is about enhancing what is already there. He goes on to explain that some of the detail is so faint and minute that it is only by using long exposures that it is possible to record it and make it more visible, and has no qualms about doing this. If he were to introduce something that wasn’t there however, that would cross the line between documentary and art and it would become unacceptable to try to pass this off as reality.
One example which he feels may not be acceptable to some people is the photograph entitled Blue Moon, taken by Lodriguss in 1999. This is a composite of two photographs taken at different exposures, one for the moon and the other, the foreground and he justifies it by saying that it was not possible to make this picture with one exposure because of the difference in brightness between the moon and the foreground which was 14 stops, but this was pretty much as he saw it with his eyes, including the moon being in exactly the same place.
Jerry Lodriguss acknowledges that some people feel he goes too far with the digital enhancements he applies to his astrophotography and admits that it is often very near the line he himself feels he shouldn’t cross. It is a matter of taste and it seems that the bottom line depends on what you are trying to achieve and what your motives are and then you have to be upfront about it. So if you are aiming to replicate or document a scene, it is fine to enhance it so that it is more aesthetically pleasing but not to introduce something new. On the other hand if what you are trying to create is fiction and you are honest about this to start with, then pretty much anything goes. I quite like this distinction because it seems to me to be about honesty and integrity whilst at the same time giving the individual the freedom to delve into more artistic and creative areas should they choose to do so.
Lodriguss, J, Catching the Light, http://www.astropix.com/HTML/J_DIGIT/ETHICS.HTM [accessed 22 May 2013]