To Truth or Document, That is the Question

Friend Razzbuffnik raised some questions about the photograph on the right when I posted it yesterday.

He was wondering whether the “effects” I had actually made to the photograph weakened it as a commercially viable “stock” photo. He suggested that a more realistic photo in his experience might be preferred in a corporate brochure.

Since he is experienced in this area, I have given this some thought and take his point. But, I also wanted to open up the discussion to anyone reading this blog who might want to expand the discussion. Because he subsequently raised a fascinating issue that speaks to historical discussions about photography and what it is.

I’m paraphrasing here, Razz, so I hope I do it accurately. He raised the often heard discussion (at least in photography circles) about whether photography is a document, implying that something really happened which would translate into implying the truth. He notes that is one reason photography is so often used in commercial photography.

He discussed the theory that when you add an “effect”, (and in the instance of this photograph, I have added more than one) it subtracts from it being a document and therefore implies it is not the truth.

Now, this is what I find fascinating and would like to hear your thoughts. The whole idea of “truth” and its relationship to “manipulation”. You can’t be living through this campaign season (has it only been five years that they have been running?) without thinking about truth and manipulation and now to think about it focused through one photograph is a relief! I don’t have to worry about whether the fireman has cheated on his wife or is an elitist trying to get away from the common folk. Let’s talk truth through image.

Nothing more but nothing less.

So, I shall tell you what I did to this original photograph and why I did it. This is sort of wonky photography stuff but hopefully not too boring.

First, I cropped the original which had included the whole fire truck, the entire ladder, and the fire station where this firefighter was using the ladder.

Then, I merged the photograph with another photograph I took later in the day through my rain splattered windshield (I had turned wipers off) of a cemetery with trees and stone wall. I had used a wide angle lens 16-35mm for both photographs.

At the time I took each photograph, I had no idea that I would end up using them together.

Later when I got home and looked at the day’s images, it was clear that the crop of the fireman on his ladder was going to be my beginning point. But, I also knew, I wanted to do something to it. I wasn’t sure what.

So, this is when I just try image after image to see about blending them.

In the process, I realized I wanted to have this original photograph be about emerging from something. Rising above something. In other words, to take a cliche and give it some new life.

By merging the photograph of the landscape with the lone fireman and his ladder, I began to use the most powerful feature of Photoshop in my opinion, layers and various blending modes. My goal at this point was conscious: I wanted to have the ladder begin in dark, ominous storm clouds so that he appeared to be climbing out of the dark into the light. To do this I had to alter the color of the clouds in the lower third of the photograph. To these separate layers, I sometimes add a painterly filter to one or more as well ie. dry brush, fresco, watercolor..there are several. Sometimes they add to the mix and texture, sometimes they don’t. I actually don’t remember whether I used one on the separate layers I had while working on this image or not. I think I used a fresco one. The darkness you are seeing ultimately in the clouds where the ladder begins is actually a blending of the trees from the cemetery, not application of direct color or even of other clouds.

So, there you have it. The anatomy of effects and manipulation on this particular photo.

I would love to hear your thoughts of any aspect of this conversation. I thank Razz for making it interesting.

©Pat Coakley 2008


16 comments on “To Truth or Document, That is the Question”

  1. First, whew, Pat.
    This is a lot to think about. And the way you explained it allowed me to see both sides of the question ( a very good one from Razz and a very timely world tie-in from you ).
    What I think, after seeing the images before and after, and reading your process, creative core spinning, your artists’ eye racing, your open mind considering all, is- for Petes’ sake, people, ( as you would say ), Why shouldn’t photography be considered both document AND art/truth.

    As long as they are identified as such.

    You put thought and skill and creativity into that first photo.
    It should serve as what it is.
    A thought provoking, personal expression of art.

    The original, is the document. If it’s not as exciting an image, I guess that’s why you shoot dozens of shots ( the days of wasting film are gone ).
    So if we can give both their place and their label- let them both have their category.

    A great topic, this one, and I’m interested in reading the many other thoughts that will be scrolling in here.

  2. P.S. Photoshop ROCKS! I’m a neophyte but even the learning is great. It’s an endless palette.

  3. Gosh… I absolutely love it with the effects. I think it adds drama and interest to the photo without compromising its integrity at all. If the shot persay was taken of the ladder going up a skyscraper, and you superimposed the image over the sky – then you are on iffy ground IMHO. But this just makes the picture a bit more exciting and visually interesting to the eye.

    I am not a photographer. I don’t even own a camera. But, design is a part of my life. I would fib if I were to tell you I didn’t know anything about that. I think the integrity of the piece stands up just fine. Commercially viable etc.

  4. Hmm…. tough question. I think it depends on the kind of photography – is it for documentary purposes (in why case, adding effects or Photoshopping it would indeed take away from the truth), or is it used as an art form?

    I sometimes hear people saying that a photo enhanced with Photoshop (or one of its less-outrageously-expensive cousins) is “not real”. Well, I’ve never heard anyone complain when a painting of an apple, a landscape or a person is enhanced with more red, or with creative brush strokes. Does it really matter how you reached the image, if it is appealing? Why is it than artistic license is limited to painting or writing, but when it comes to photography, everything’s gotta be pure and untouched?

    (By the way, Pat – I do have two blogs. My art one and my “regular” one, hence your confusion with leaving comments. Your comments as a WordPress person were duly accepted. No need to revert to your Google alter-ego :-)

  5. Painting owes a debt of gratitude to photography as it liberated painting from being so “documentary” and freed up painting to be more “expressive”.

    In a way, I agree with Bonnie and to be honest, I don’t really care if a picture is manipulated or not. What I care about is whether it “looks” manipulated. When I become conscious of manipulation I feel a disappointment akin to being shown how a magic trick works. It’s longer magic but merely presdigitation. A cheap trick.

    To me, obvious “effects” are usually pretty lame. I think that many people who are new to Photoshop (I’m not implying that you are Pat), think that it is for making far out surreal images or to make them painterly.

    When I was at art college, one of my lecturers once said to me, if you want to create images that look like paintings, learnt how to paint. I think that he had a point, much like what Marshall McLuhan said: “the medium is the message”.

    The point I’m trying to make, without being overly dogmatic, is that the medium of photography “implies” truth (whether it is or not). We instinctively know that paintings can’t possibly be the “real truth”. I’m talking about perceptions here, not reality.

    When I look at both photos I have to say that I think that the addition of the dark clouds at the bottom really does help the communication of what you were trying to say with the image. I mistook the blurriness of the clouds shot through wet glass to be a Photoshop effect like “glass”.

    If I was going to try and communicate your intention, I’d still have the dark clouds at the bottom (I assumed they were in the original shot but I thought you’d applied an effect to them) but I’d have sharp clouds. If I was stuck I’d clone various other parts of the cloud onto another layer and darken it

    I don’t mind manipulation if I’m not conscious of the artifice because the artifice subtracts, in my mind, from the so called “truth” of the photographic medium.

    “Less is more” as Mies van der Rohe once said.

  6. I am taking a quick break so haven’t read all the comments – apologies if I am unintentionally repeating anything that has been said – I am not aware.

    Question – is it not perhaps subjective to what the “purchaser” may be looking for? Stock wise it could be for a book cover or it could be for a poster. I understand that those who buy stock photos often want to edit them themselves to produce more along the lines of what they want..

    Another Q – when you do these photos, when you take these photos is it for commercial purposes or for your creative artistic endeavors?

    I am probably totally off base as usual, either way I love both but I feel that the one on the right is far more artistic, it has greater depth and clarity. It is a book cover. The one on the left is dull (no offense), although it is a great photo newspaper editors would edit before printing it as well.

  7. P.S. If you’re uploading to istockphoto or the likes upload both then there is no loss and everyone is happy as beans on toast with a few fries!

  8. Ok. Good morning, campers! After breakfast let’s all meet at the limestone quarry and risk death by diving in. Don’t tell your parents.

    Truth and Manipulation. Again, this morning. The headlines. Not just American politics, always droning on.. But, the Olympics..again. Seriously, this is the Olympics courtesy of Photoshop. The motherlode example when it comes to discussions of truth and manipulation. I shall not start but does it ever end.

    Your comments again remind me of why I love blogging. The quality of thought. Thank you.

    I am thinking oddly that Photoshop “liberated” me, much as Razz aptly says that photography liberated painting from having to ‘document” historical events.

    I shall post what I mean in the coming days. After I post a silly mushroom later today. Because after this weightiness, we need a little froth. I believe this shall qualify as mushroom froth. I’m going to google that term later to see if there is such a thing.

    I am interested in knowing more about the stock photo world of commerce. Might there be a way for me to create and to prosper??

    O, my. Really? Istockphoto? Never heard of it until I read these comments.

    I do it because I love to do it and it helps me figure out what I’m thinking and feeling. Much like discovering the diary that you wrote as a young girl when you are 63. You sit down on the basement step, read it like a found treasure and remember for the first time in a long time who you are.

    Let me see, now….I’d give that last line….a…GOLD medal! Anthem playing, of course.

  9. Hmm, interesting question. After much deliberation, I like the original better. And it has little to do with truth. If you were documenting an event for a publication, then I’d certainly take issue with this manner of manipulation.
    In this case, I find the dark clouds too prominent. Coming from a film background, I’ve been taught to avoid items that break the suspension of belief. If you were watching a medieval adventure film, and the main character pulled out his cell phone (or something else so clearly anachronistic), your brain instantly exits the world in your head and is again incredibly conscious that it’s all a movie, all fake.
    For this shot, the dark clouds jumped out at me: not real. And I begin to wonder about everything else. I don’t mind manipulation – I mean, that vignetting I love doesn’t *actually* happen on my lenses – but I don’t want the manipulation to be the first thing I see.
    If you are going to explore the stock world, check out first. They are artist-centric, pay more, and have a wealth of information (articles, blogs) on how to succeed in stock.

  10. Thanks, Mt. Brooks, for thoughts and suggestion! I’m going to visit Photoshelter today. Any new apps for iphone that you’d like to share?

  11. It is what it is. I like both.

    but I lean towards non-photo-shopped stuff: as it happens, point and shoot, and hopefully it works out kind of stuff.

  12. ok maybe simplistic but Photos-R-Art no matter which way the shutter snaps and the filters fall, documentation is a sidebar, even if one refuses to gaze upon that which falls out-of-the-box doesn’t mean it isn’t there,”it” being whatever-IT-is being more than a documentary and so much more than a snapshot, aghast, the expression of a selfless soul, what is it? do we know this already, is this something (ugh) new? what-do-we-call-it? would someone please find a genre for me, thankyou and good night

    oh, it’s art, don’t worry

  13. tipota, what a unique and fascinating way to talk about this subject. Love “even if one refuses to gaze upon that which falls out-of-the-box doesn’t mean it isn’t there…” This applies to so many things! Thanks.

    PR. Whatever camera I pick up, I have that “hopefully it works out kind of stuff”.

  14. […] but I really need “a hair of the dog.” None will be had. I wanted to comment on Pat Coakley’s post about photography, but I have not been able to put two ideas together all day long. Honestly, at 2 […]

  15. hopefully it works out kind of stuff is the kind of stuff in everything if you’re lucky enough to hopefully work it out

  16. […] I mean I come from a farming family and NEVER have I seen a ghetto tomato planter. Shocking I know, Truth or Document, That is the Question. Talking about truth, The Truth About Aging is Absolutely Amazing, just this morning I found […]

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