An Editorial By Scott Bourne
Most of my photo friends know that I am a digital dog. I like all things digital. I bought all the early (expensive) digital cameras and printers and while all that equipment is now being used as a boat anchor, I don’t regret buying any of it. I learned what I know about digital by having AITB syndrome. (Arrows In The But!) First down the path and all that.
The trials and tribulations I experienced with early digital equipment however seemed minor when compared to the outright prejudice and abuse shown to me by my fellow photographers. When I first started using digital processes, I was told (by many so-called experts) that what I was doing was not photography. When I asked what it was, no one could tell me but they just knew it wasn’t photography. The cynical side of me believes that these statements are the product of ignorance. Most of the people saying these things did not have the skill (or the money) to obtain and properly use digital equipment. Were they just jealous? Were they afraid that the new technology would pass them by? Well yes to both questions, but there is more to it than that.
Those early troubles started 15 years ago. Today, digital photography has gained worldwide acceptance. Digital cameras far outsell film cameras. Most of the photo magazines are devoted exclusively to digital photography. Many major universities now offer courses in digital photography, digital photo workshops are held nationwide by very respectable institutions and digital photography is bought and sold daily in wedding and portrait studios, at magazines, in art galleries, etc.
So now that digital photography is the norm, what ethical questions must we face as digital continues to explode onto the photo landscape? (Pun intended.) Well, very few if any in my opinion. Unless you are a photojournalist, evidence photographer, medical photographer, or scientific photographer or otherwise similarly situated, you have no ethical or moral obligation to make photographs appear “accurately.” You do have an obligation to make images, as you see them. As YOU see them. Not necessarily as they are.
Most photography is simply a “snapshot” of a certain moment. This snapshot usually represents something that is important to the photographer, to his subject or to his audience. Sometimes the moment in question will be important to all. If the photographer wants to remember the moment a certain way, there are many photographic tools, (some of them digital) which can empower him to do so. But what about reality?
The notion that film-based photography represents “reality” better than digital photography is nothing sort of stupid and absurd. You can use a slow shutter speed (on a film-based camera OR on a digital camera) to blur the rushing waterfall. Properly executed, the water will look like cotton candy. But that waterfall doesn’t look like that to the naked eye. Haven’t you just blurred reality? Based on the strict adherence to the photo as truth dogma, isn’t that cheating?
Before digital photography was born, photographers manipulated their images. Ansel Adams did. Yep, that’s right. The guy, who helped to found the f64 camera club for straight photography, manipulated his own images. He used red and green filters to boost the contrast of his B&W film. He used all the traditional variables that have been available in the darkroom since photography was invented such as dodging and burning and contrast masking. Was he cheating? I don’t think so. (In an ironic twist of fate, I happen to own the web domain f64.com!)
The photo Nazis that seem to permeate camera clubs these days say that nothing short of a straight, ultra-sharp photograph should be considered photography. When pushed on the issue of filters, auto focus, ETTL flash, darkroom manipulation and the like, they defend those practices as accepted norms. Those tools are all acceptable they say. I will ignore their obvious hypocrisy. Digital photography can be practiced within the confines of those norms as well.
Unlike the purists, I don’t see it as my place in this world to tell others how they should remember a scene photographically. But for me, I practice a brand of digital ethics that I believe will one day be accepted as the norm for “straight” photography.
I USUALLY don’t do anything to a “digital” photograph that I couldn’t do in the traditional darkroom or with a film-based camera. When I bring an image into Photoshop, I adjust levels, curves and color (exposure). I lighten some areas and darken others (dodging and burning). I make some areas sharper (contrast masking). I sometimes (but rarely) will insert the moon over a mountain (double exposure). I add blur to some images to make them more ethereal (add a fishnet over the enlarger head). Get the point?
That said, I don’t care what anyone else does.
Some people just seem to want to make everything harder than it needs to be. Digital photography is a tool. It is no different than a graduated neutral density filter or a special developer that adds contrast to a picture. The tools that photographers use to tell their stories are frankly, irrelevant. What does matter? The images we make are what matter. For me, the ONLY thing that matters is the image – period. Not how you make it; not what camera or process you used; the image. Too little discussion centers on making important images and instead, centers on discussions about the tools and technology we use to produce the images.
When I make a photograph that causes someone to think, or to smile, or to laugh or to cry, they react because of the visual statement I created. How I created it is of no importance to them. Why is it so important to the guy in the camera club?
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