Saturday, July 11, 2009


There are two forms of integrity. The first is pictorial integrity. The second, personal. Both are very important to making a good image; here's why.

Photoshop has often been derided as the tool of the dishonest photographer; used to rearrange elements of a scene, add things that weren't there and remove things that detract aesthetically. What people don't realize is that even in the early days of film, there was a lot more going on than the average punter got to see - aside from the dodging and burning and various different developer options (think of it as analogous to camera raw) we had retouchers who touched up prints by hand, with brushes; photographers who would composite negatives, stick them together and print the image as a whole, and then those where the entire scene would just be staged. It has often been said that some of HCB's famous images - the couple kissing on V day for instance - were actually staged rather than 'caught'.

Look at this practically though: if you can draw things from scratch in photoshop in a convincing manner, you should probably be an illustrator rather than a photographer. Having done quite a bit of design work myself using Photoshop, I can tell you that it is NOT an easy thing to do. Removing things isn't so hard, but is still a lot of work. Both are no-nos for the honest photojournalist, as is overprocessing. (Oddly, overprocessing in B&W seems to be a lot more forgivable than doing the same in color.) It of course goes without saying that the biggest no-no is in staging the scene. If you get caught doing any one of these things, you can kiss goodbye to your career.

Yet in commercial photography, all of the former things are not only acceptable, but often encouraged and required for a photographer to distinguish themselves from the competition. And the better you are at mastering them, the more you'll likely be paid. Do you see the dissonance here? I certainly do. It only goes to reinforce the conception that all advertising is a lie. It's probably also why there are very few photographers who are at the top of their game both for commercial and photojournalistic work.

Unless you are beyond excellent at your photoshop skills - and even then - it doesn't take long to see when scenes have been artificially composited and altered. Your commercial work then no longer becomes real; if you are trying to portray something so far out of the experience of the average person then the impact is lost somewhat - they have nothing to aspire to. (Isn't that the point of advertising? To make people aspire to something they don't have yet?)

Personal integrity comes into play - more like into question - when you sit back and it stops bothering you that you're using lies to sell crap, or worse, that you're misrepresenting reality rather than portraying it from your point of view. It's a thin line to tread, no question. Then there's the whole issue about whether you're pushing yourself hard enough, giving your best - there's no sadder person than he who lies to delude himself, because nobody will ever be able to convince him otherwise. If you're lucky enough to be given an assignment, then damn well do it to the best of your ability. I especially hate people who are hired to do things that are VERY important to others - read weddings - yet don't really care enough to put their full effort into what is (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for somebody. I once spoke to a wedding photographer who said that weddings were easy - understand what's going on and just be there to get the moment - I disagree. It's stressful because you have ONE chance to get it EXACTLY right - unlike photojournalism, you can't get it partway right and let the historical significance of the moment carry the shot. That's dishonest. You're doing your clients a disservice, and even worse, deluding yourself.

So for those of you who are really serious about your photography, the next time you shoot, ask yourself if you're doing your level best; if you can't raise your game, even if it's by doing something as simple as forcefully reducing the number of keepers at the end of the day, so the overall standard is higher - then next time you review your archive, you'll have to top it. I know I always try - and that's why there are weeks like this week where I shoot not at all. Since I have the luxury of not being on assignment I'd rather have a few shots where everything comes together perfectly than a boatload of lousy ones.

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