Skepticism regarding the authenticity of images in the digital age

With cheaper and more powerful technology in cameras as well as an extensive menu of apps to post-process digital photographs the more people question the authenticity of an image.  Facebook is littered with viral images appearing to convey a clear message, but later we often find the accompanying text has fooled us again because words and pictures can convey many different meanings when out of context.  Digital altering and using composites to create something that never existed to begin with is also becoming more common and sadly accepted as the years pass.   

It’s not about perfection it’s about authenticity. Photoshop is not authenticity.
— Sam Abell, National Geographic Photographer

Instagram can make even your mother’s iPhone picture worthy of a like or emoji.  Skies never looked so blue, grass so vibrant with yellow and green, clarity and sharpness beyond what the human eye naturally can see and tilt shift lenses to distort what is a mundane picture into a sensational new dream-like reality without having to tap into that voice inside that drives your art.  These digital shortcuts and tools are Band-Aids and can stunt a photographers ability to previsualize which is a fundamental skill to being a competent photographer.  A vision, tailored eye and a purpose are items that need to be checked off the list every time a photograph is made.  

Image manipulation and questioning the authenticity of imagery is not new and photographers have been touching up negatives in order to achieve smoother skin or combine images into one since the early years of photography.  Today, the secret sauce is out because we have online access to tips, tutorials, video instruction and software to quickly make any photographer a retouch artist as well.  As time has passed, depicting reality is now an uphill battle filled with doubt and question.  

Recently I posted the image below and the interactions made me think about this topic of authenticity and technology because of the amount of people who quickly asked what equipment I used, was it a cut out and was it taken with a tilt shift lens?


The image above was not shot with an 85mm.  Nor was it cut out from one image and placed into this backdrop.  And no, I definitely did not use a tilt shift lens.  The optical illusion was done in camera at the scene and took me about one minute.  Several things helped achieve this picture besides pushing the shutter.  I placed the sun behind the two gentleman to act as a rim light.  The sky was dark because of a storm brewing west of where we were located making the sky darker than normal.  I popped a strobe to light the couple giving the picture two opposite directions of light which created a little visual confusion.  Also, I am standing on my camera case to add just a little bit of height so the two men’s heads fall just below the horizon adding to more visual ambiguity.  The lens I used was not the bokeh king itself, the 85mm 1.2 but the 70-200 2.8.

I despise tech questions.  Long gone are the days fellow photographers sat around a table studying each other’s work while reveling in their vision.  I recall that feeling of awe while looking at my colleagues documentary work.  We were all inspired by each other's vision and in return that injected an energy in ourselves to work harder honing our vision while remaining open to seeing differently.  Hello to the days that a picture will stop even those with no visual aesthetic but who might quickly question what has been done to make an image look so unreal, and great.  This universal skepticism quietly affirms that vision and artistry are no longer considered an option to making photographs.  The assumption is that images that look good must have been touched up as they pass through the computers and on to the web.

Photography is a medium of formidable contradictions. It is both ridiculously easy and almost impossibly difficult. It is easy because its technical rudiments can readily be mastered by anyone with a few simple instructions. It is difficult because, while the artist working in any other medium begins with a blank surface and gradually brings his conception into being, the photographer is the only image-maker who begins with the picture completed. His emotions, his knowledge, and his native talent are brought into focus and fixed beyond recall the moment the shutter of his camera has closed.
— Edward Steichen

Clearly manipulation has never been so simple.  I learned photography in a way that forced me to connect with my vision while making the photograph and executing a majority of my vision in the field.  The darkroom was left for personalizing the feel of the picture through burning, dodging and chemical development.  Manipulation took great skill and a lot of time.  From the beginning my interest in photography was always with documentary photography and photojournalism.  The two fields already had strict rules about tampering with the scene and affecting the final image while photographing as well as while developing and printing.  A documentary photographer can not move, adjust, rearrange, ask people to repeat something or tamper with reality in any way.  While I don't have to live by such strict rules with my commercial work today, these rules exercised my eye and is responsible for how I see today.   While my commercial work does have wiggle room for touching things up, it will always be at the core of my personal work. 

The only computer work that went into these images was nothing more than basic photoshop darkroom work of burning, dodging, color correction, contrast adjustments, brightness, hue and saturation.  In other words, everything I could have done in a traditional wet lab and very similar to the tools I used in the wet lab. 

Is pure, straight photography the only worthy kind?  Who am I to decide an overly Photoshopped image and composites are not worthy?  Are real moments suspended in time the only worthy pictures to be made?  Clearly that is where I fall within the spectrum of how I use my camera to communicate what is important to me.  Between reality TV not depicting reality, and photography being more about digital post processing it is no wonder people question what is real and true.  I find myself intrigued about how more important the topic is to me today than 30 years ago.  It's been an exciting journey settling into LA and the West Coast, and finding other photographers who share similar values.

I attended a lecture given by Sebastio Salgado recently, and he mentioned photography as we know it today will not exist in 20-30 years.  With such a large influx of new photographers, the field is diluted.  Photographers feel the intense competition and "fixing" images creating non-realities wins over those who strive for a more honest, pure approach.  I tend to agree despite its pessimistic connotation.   In my lifetime, I know there will always be those who hold on to purity and vision rather than Lightroom quick keys to make their images shine.  While the future of photography is scary, I am hopeful there will always be those who strive for "perfection" the moment the shutter clicks. 

Digital technology will make it continually easier to create high-quality photos in all sorts of conditions with little or no technical expertise. Combine this with a growing awareness of street photography as an art form, and countless ways to share photos with little or no effort, and you have an endless torrent of clichés and weak imitations. Today, more street photographs are made in a single day than were made in the entire decade of the 1950s, and most of them have little or no artistic merit. It is the worst of times.
— Ken Walton - Street Shooter from San Francisco