When does a photograph stop being a true photograph?

I have a friend to really likes photography, and he went to do a photo shoot of a building and spent an hour trying to get the perfect shot. While he was there another guy walked in with a compact point-and-shoot, took a quick photograph in five minutes and walked off. That quick photograph was the one that won the competition, while my friend’s photograph did not. The guy won the contest, not because he took the best photograph. He took a very mediocre one, which normally would never have had any chance at winning.

But, through the miracle of Photoshop he was able to radically transform this mediocre image into a spectacular one. He imported a sky from somewhere else and pasted it in, he made the ground local wet, he played with the colors and lighting and contrast, he was able to create a panoramic view, and finally give it a fisheye distortion. In other words, his composition was 1% photograph, and that 99% Photoshop mastery.

My friend complained to the jury about their selection, because he had worked very hard to try to actually take a high-quality photograph, while the other guy and simply used Photoshop to fabricate a beautiful photograph. Anyway, it certainly makes one think about whether we should put limits on what can be done to a photograph in such contests. Because if we don’t, it’s going to rapidly become a case, more of graphic design, than actual photography. If the way to win, is to employ someone who’s an expert at Photoshop, then why worry much about the actual photograph? It also raises the question of when does a photograph stopping a photograph?

At an intuitive level, there seems to be an understanding that controls, such as white balance, contrast, saturation, etc., can be played with while still preserving the basic integrity of the image. Doing surgery, however, by cutting and pasting, and actually changing content, seems to go beyond what we intrinsically think of as a photograph. After all, in general, we think of photographs as capturing a moment of reality, not as something created-like Frankenstein-out of a computer, with bits and pieces from who knows where.

I’m not saying that getting really funky with Photoshop is necessarily bad, but at some point I believe that it crosses a line and stops being what we traditionally think of as a photograph, and starts becoming an example of graphic art.  One does not necessarily have to be better than the other, but in a contest I do think that we should define with relative clarity what people can present.

One possibility is to allow photographs to be adjusted within the normal parameters, but to not allow an actual changing of the content of the image. Anyway, it’s just a thought, but this brave new world of Photoshop is raising questions that we did not have to deal with in the past.

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