A few days ago, I came across a fascinating discussion on social media. Someone had posted an iconic picture of Tina Turner on the Eiffel Tower, shot by Peter Lindberg for the cover of her single Foreign Affair. A commenter had the gall to dismiss it as a fake, saying nobody would’ve risked the life of such a big star for this picture, prompting another user to answer, “Sad that Photoshop has taken away the legitimacy of real photography.” This is the kind of question we at the Phoblographer feel most drawn to. Has Photoshop really damaged the legitimacy of what we do? Has it made people suspicious of visual media?
The short answer is, obviously, yes. The slightly longer answer is “Yes, and we thank all the gods for it.”
Photography has never been exactly true.
Some adages have withstood the test of time, becoming undeniable truths. Some sayings were proven false, either by logical thinking or mere happenstance. And there’s a third type, the ones born dead, devoid of any connection with reality.
Among the latter, my favorite is that quote by Jean Luc Godard, the famous French cinematographer; “Photography is truth. Cinema is truth 24 times per second.”
As far as I can tell, photography has never been able to present Truth or Reality as it is. After all, it’s just a two-dimensional representation of a slice of reality contained by four edges. It will contain what the photographer was attracted to in the first place, context be damned, and that is without taking into account any kind of intent, malicious or not, on behalf of the artist.
Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.Garry Winogrand
This may be hard to believe for some people, but photo manipulation —and its close sibling, manipulation via photography— existed way before Photoshop debuted in the nineties.
Before even reaching the darkroom, you could manipulate in-camera by framing or composing your picture in a certain way. Take a picture of a man huddling in the ground, and it will tell a story of sadness and heartbreak. Open up the frame, capture the soldier threatening him, and the story changes.
Furthermore, our subjects didn’t have “voices” as they do today with social media. It was relatively easy to tell them to pose, exaggerate their gestures, or act in a certain way — without being rightfully exposed for it later.
Of course, this doesn’t even consider all those things Jean Luc Godard should’ve been aware of, such as backdrops, actors, makeup artists, or practical effects — or even passing a location for another, such has been done uncountable times on TV series.
Manipulation in the darkroom
After that, we got to the darkroom. Dodging, burning, and masking were not introduced by Photoshop. Ansel Adams, for example, was a master of these techniques. Rather than manipulating the light on the scene —something unheard of due to scale or lack of technical resources— artists such as Gertrude Käsebier used these tools to achieve exactly the results they wanted to achieve.
This was just the beginning, though. Through enlargers and positives, a bit of patience, and a big dollop of artistic vision, what you could achieve in the darkroom was nothing short of miraculous.
For a quick example, this composite was created by Frank Hurley in 1918. It wasn’t made maliciously; it was just a way to show the reality of war to people who couldn’t even imagine how horrific and gut-wrenching it was.
Would you be able to tell this picture wasn’t real? Would you even be tempted to check for evidence of tampering if it was presented to you as reality?
Hell, one of the most famous Abraham Lincoln pictures wasn’t even Abraham Lincoln. It was Abraham Lincoln’s head edited —very ironically, I might add— onto the body of slavery advocate John C. Calhoun!
Manipulation In the studio
Have you ever heard of Eugene Smith? A photographer born in Wichita in 1918, he made his way to Spain in 1950. Sent by Life, accompanied by an assistant and an interpreter, he had the mission to capture the problems with food supplies in Franco’s Spain.
His intention was other, though. As the photo story coincided with the United States discussing whether they should ally themselves with Spain, he was determined to show what life was like —poverty, fear, and hunger— under the rule of the fascist dictator.
In no time, he made his way to Deleitosa, a small town in Cáceres, where he shot one of my favorite pictures for its composition, lighting, style, and haunting ambiance — Spanish Wake.
Looking at the picture and all it portrays —heartbreak, sorrow, mourning, intimacy— one could hardly tell it’s actually edited to further its message; two of the mourners had their eyes painted over with black, a sliver of white added on top to make it appear as if they were looking at the deceased, instead of looking at the photographer as they did in the original photo.
Think how different the message would be, just by the sole application of an ink drop—just a drop, yet enough to alter the mood and the ambiance of the piece.
Now imagine what could be done, even back then. Taking someone out of a picture because he fell out of grace. Adding clothes to avoid censorship by bigoted regimes. Editing an inconvenient graffiti out of a wall. The possibilities were as endless as the credibility; few people were aware not of these manipulations, but of their possibility.
F. Kislov / Tate, 1937
Under public domain according to Wikipedia
So… what did Photoshop bring to the table?
While it started as a simple way to display grayscale images, it didn’t take long before it was developed into a complete image editing program. In a short few years, it ended up being a staple not only of our industry but of daily life in most of the world; from professionals altering cover photos beyond recognition to teenagers making memes and edits for fun, the fact is that Photoshop has become so pervasive that it even became a verb, much to the chagrin of Adobe.
You must never use the Photoshop trademark as a common verb (‘to photoshop an image,” as an example of such incorrect use) or as a noun. Since Photoshop is a trademark, you should always use it as an adjective only to describe the Adobe products associated with the Photoshop brand.Adobe Photoshop Terms and Conditions
So, while it was true that we could do wonders without Photoshop, the existence of this software made it easier, cheaper, and more accessible. You didn’t need to dedicate a room to develop your pictures. You didn’t need specialized tools or machinery. Just a copy of Photoshop and a computer where to use it!
With this popularization came this inevitable conclusion. As the general public became aware of the possibilities of photo manipulation, they started to become a tad more skeptical of what they saw and took as reality. Just a tad, mind you.
Sadly, we still need more Skepticism.
We still fall prey to the overly edited images pushed out on us by the beauty industry, with our self-esteem taking hit after hit. Most of us fail to be skeptical unless the image goes against our biases and prejudices. A disappointingly high number of people —even professionals— fall for AI-generated imagery of all kinds.
Thankfully, most of them aren’t important enough to matter. They’ve been used as pranks, as wild attempts at misinformation, or as a way to avoid paying artists for real artwork. On the other hand, this can also be used to damage reputations, fake pornography, or even try to force misguided political action.
Precisely because there is a tendency to give more credence to the photograph than the word, photographic reports are easily turned by means of cropping, fixing, retouching, false captions and fantastic photomontages into dangerous weapons for low political struggles.Emil Dovifat (1890—1969)
We have to thank Photoshop and its popularity for its part in making people skeptical on visual media. Sadly, it hasn’t been enough; we need to teach visual and media literacy so otherwise smart people don’t fall for the most obvious manipulations.
Photoshop and its popularity did its part in making people skeptical of visual media, and for that we have to thank whoever is looking down on us. Sadly, it hasn’t been enough. We need to teach to spot these so people are safe from manipulators of all kinds.
And, obviously, we need people to know that no, baby peacocks don’t look like this cartoonified aberration. We’re talking about real-life animals, not Pokémon here.