Photographers Have Always Deceived People. You Probably Have, Too. So What?

For as long as photography has existed, the art of deception has been front and center of the craft. You change photos, I change photos, we all change photos. Who cares, as long as the viewer is happy?

When new cameras are released, the news cycle revolves around a seemingly infinite number of reviews from ambassadors, YouTubers, influencers, and early adopters. The buzz around this year’s Canon EOS R5 release was crazy, particularly considering we’re in the middle of this century’s worst global health crisis. That buzz has since abated somewhat and been replaced in the last few weeks by the debate surrounding AI software developments and releases, particularly by Adobe with regards to sky replacements and facial-editing capabilities. Is it photography, is it art, is its digital photography, is it somewhere in-between, is it something else altogether? Opinions have been coming at a breakneck speed from all parts of the spectrum.

However, the reality is that these software developments that allow for an almost inconceivable array of post-production editing capabilities are just one notch in a long, historical belt of image and truth manipulation. Fittingly, considering the current US election, there is evidence as far back as Abraham Lincoln’s time that he asked photographers to retouch images so as to shorten his neck and make him appear more youthful. Indeed, he credited such editing with helping him win an election.

Joe McCarthy also used some clever cut-and-paste scissor work to discredit one of his great rivals at the time, Senator Millard Tydings. If you care to look further into the popularity of the technique at the time, you can find all sorts of examples and evidence in the Daily Herald photo archives now lodged with the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England. Staying within the political sphere, there are countless examples of old Russian photos where disgraced party members such as Tolstoy and Molotov had been airbrushed from official photos on the orders of Stalin.

To more modern times, the infamous photo of Michael Jackson dangling his new baby over the edge of a window had the security guards deliberately removed by the newspaper that printed the picture. It’s also common knowledge that GQ made Kate Winslet thinner and sleeker for its cover image in 2003, following her starring role in Titanic. Even Robert Capa’s famous war image of a dying soldier in France was said to be staged, evidence of which was presented in Philip Knightley’s “The First Casualty” in 1975.

We could go on and on forever, but the salient point here is that the deliberate finessing of truth, fact, and reality by photographers has been going on since the medium first came to fruition, for all intents and purposes. To be clear, there is a big difference between faking journalism, or war correspondence, or political photos that could potentially influence world affairs, and a landscape shot of your local beach. One is far more serious than the other, but it seems that with Adobe’s recent release of its updated AI software (following Skylum Luminar and others), people are getting all tied up about fake imagery and unacceptable deception. The stark truth is that we all deceive our viewers if we’re doing any kind of post-production work.

In the image above, it was not a black and white evening, nor did the clouds look like that. I put a 10-stop filter over the front of the lens and kept the shutter open for a good few minutes.

In this image here, I removed gobs of yellow gunk from round my daughter’s eyes and nose, and I’m sure the viewer is thankful for it. Is it truthful to the image that the camera took? No, of course not. But who wants to see my daughter’s royal, winter snot in all its glory, anyway?

Finally, it goes without saying that this is not what I saw in the morning I took this shot. I took three shots of surfers and a separate shot of the ocean where I did some intentional camera movement to get those streaky lines. Then I blended or composited them all together in Photoshop. Does it matter that this is not real? No, it doesn’t.

However, it’s not just post-production editing that serves to deceive our viewers. Camera gear also does that for us. Take a fast lens that has an f/1.8 aperture, like my Sigma Art 50mm, for example. When I use that lens and get that gorgeous, smooth, buttery, creamy, octagonal bokeh, do you think that’s what the eye sees? And then you use a different lens, and its bokeh is slightly different again. More deception. What about real estate agents who are trying to sell a house or unit, so they make rooms and interiors appear far more roomy and spacious than they really are by using super wide-angle lenses, or even fisheye lenses? Where does that fall in the deception spectrum, particularly if, or when a disgruntled viewer sees the property as it actually is and realizes it’s barely half the size it appears in the photos? Or what about architectural photographers who use tilt-shift lenses? Or night photographers who use telephoto lenses to make the moon appear far bigger within the frame than it really is? Deception is everywhere in photography, and it always has been.

Summing Up

I think many of us forget that photography, as with all forms of art and creative expression, is a relationship between the photographer and the viewer. If the viewer likes the end result and reacts positively, what does it matter how that end was achieved? Of course, that excludes photojournalism or news correspondence, where there is an onus to present the truth, but that’s not what Adobe’s (and other software companies’) latest releases are aimed at. Can you imagine what Mozart might think of electronica musicians who create their music solely from samples? I dare not think, but the truth is that those samples are just part of the current musical tools available. As photographers, we use what we have to make an impact on the viewer, and as long as we’re open about how we achieved our final results, what does it matter?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


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