||The wide availability of simple photo retouching software, offered with the purchase of a digital camera, finally challenges the general public's opinion regarding the documental authenticity of ALL photographic images.
For many years the defenders of the documental truth - the only acceptable way for some, the actual essence of the medium for others - were opposed to the image fabricators, users of complex and mysterious practices.
The opinion of the former group defined for a long time - and often still does - not only what photography can be, but what photography actually IS : an objective representation of reality. This point of view is still widely accepted by the general public, a public that tries to find reliable markers at a time of a healthy re-evaluation of the media.
For my part, I belong to the latter group, that of the image fabricators, therefore don't expect to find an objective commentary here.
Never the less, I am convinced of the necessity for photographic documents. I just believe that we don't always find them where we hope we will.
The photographic image is always the result of choices made, consciously or not, by the operator at the time of the shoot. Therefore, the question is not whether the photographer captured the truth but rather if he wanted to represent it. The intention, not the act, is our guarantee that the image, we the spectators are looking at, presents a part of the truth. And the will to represent the truth, his truth, can lead the photographer to use practices condemned by some.
In the history of photography, the examples are many : Mathew Brady's photographs during the civil war, the remarkable work of Edward Sheriff Curtis with the Native Americans, the liberation of Berlin as seen by Jewgeni Chaldej, only to mention the best known. These "stagings" resulted from the photographers' will to produce the most accurate images possible, images that represented what they had witnessed on site. In their times they were highly criticized, some condemned. Today these images are acknowledged as faithful - if not authentic - representations of reality.
Distance both in time or space makes these acknowledgements easier. We question less the veracity of images photographed in a place or a period of time that we don't know. And yet, in these cases, it is necessary to better know about their authors' intention. The aforementioned photographs were produced by photographers with high standards, guided by the will to bear witness of their subjects as best as they could.
Let us now take a look at situations much more familiar to everyone : the family or the vacation pictures. Aren't they also staged in the intention to document the events. An outside observer of the human race that would only have our family pictures for information, would rapidly conclude that we are always facing forward and always happy. The manipulation begins with the systematic :Smile, the Stand up straight and all the other Take your hands out of your pockets that marked our childhoods. We keep the traces of these happy times. Are they images of the truth ? In any case, they are the representation of their authors' intentions, intentions shaped by habits and conventions, ritualized by our image loving societies. They are the memories that we want to keep.
We are willing to accept the manipulations, for manipulation there is, because we are willing to accept the photographers' intentions.
Of course, the photographs commonly recognized as manipulated are, the images for advertisement and the group photos retouched by the KGB, among others. In these cases the intentions are objectionable, not the photographic practice.
The photographers' motivations are not always perceptible or explained next to their images, but the spectator should always question the author's intention if they look at a photograph for information. Other approaches to the image are possible.
The easy access to mass market photo manipulation software forces us to question even more our own motivations. This is a fundamental re-thinking of the definition of the word photography. From now on, nobody can pretend that photographic representation is inseparable from reality. It is an invitation to question the conventions that conditioned the way we have been looking at almost two century of photographic imagery.