What Defines a Photograph?

Last month we entered Chris’s Butterfly Girl photo into the World Photography Organization’s 2012 World Photography Awards. It was selected from the thousands of entries as part of a promotional campaign for the contest and in that process was spread out all over the internet (yes those are all separate links). From the Daily Mail to the Huffington Post, the story about the World Photo Awards and Chris’s photo made the rounds across the web.

In particular, on the UK news site, the Daily Mail, the photo generated a ton of comments and sparked some controversy as to whether or not it was applicable for a photography competition. This caused me to ask myself the question – What defines a photograph?

I think it’s a really interesting coincidence that just earlier this week we shared a blog post about the value of photoshop vs. photography, specifically one where Chris stated his vision as:

“Photoshop is just one tool in my arsenal used to help illustrate my personal vision. But the greatest tool is my mind, followed by my camera. There are some images that just can’t be captured through the means of traditional photography. Photoshop being applied by a talented digital artist helps me complete my vision. If any one piece of mine is better classified as illustration that’s fine by me.”

Butterfly girl is the perfect example of a photograph that existed in Chris’s mind but couldn’t be completed easily through 100% traditional means of photography. Does that mean that we spent any less time working on it or that it has any less merit as a final piece? I don’t think so. There is no denying that the photograph is a composite image, but as a final photograph it is a singular execution of a singular vision.

At it’s core, the photo is also an illustrative, conceptual portrait – a style of photography that is consistent with Chris’s body of work and vision as an artist; he’s not a reportage photographer, and most likely he never will be (it certainly wouldn’t be as fun making these crazy photos if he was).

Another question worth asking is if it would be possible to capture this all in a singular frame? The answer is yes – a very, very difficult and expensive yes. The redwood forest is real, the butterflies are all real, the model is real, they were just captured at different points in time. It is entirely possibly to bring them all on location and spend days rigging and lighting the scene to make the final capture. It’s not unrealistic or impossible, just a bit over the budget for Chris’s personal project work.

Maybe I’m crazy though, maybe it is too easy for me to suspend my disbelief when looking at art and photography. The readers of the Daily Mail might not be as forgiving – according to a few of the commentators:

“The butterflies picture is pretty, but about as realistic as the movie Avatar.”

“The first is so photoshopped it hurts. Blue morpho butterflies? Sorry, not in my backyard…they’re from Mexico/S.America and live in tropical and subtropical forests. The background looks like a forest out of the Pacific Northwest. Maybe they have a photoshop category?”

“Photoshop just adds an extra dimension of fine control and expression. It’s fair to use it because it will never be a substitute for the photographer’s eye, or be able to spot the decisive moment.”

What do you think? Tell us @crismanphoto on twitter or facebook.com/crismanphoto.

25 replies to “What Defines a Photograph?”

  1. who says a photo has to be any more realistic than avatar? sheesh. not THAT long ago, people like jerry uelsman (sp?) were doing the same kind of thing w/o photoshop, and his wife maggie taylor builds completely fictional images… how about duane michaels’ work from the 70s and 80’s? pure fiction. photography doesn’t have to fit in a box. go Chris!

    and… not about the photo at all, sorry… but… what kind of tripod does chris use? w/ what head?
    gear nerdism, can’t help myself.

  2. I am a member of Professional Photographers of America (PPA) and am also a member of our local and state guild. This same question came up several years ago as we have print salon competition. We came to a compromise and settled on a separate category of “Electronic Imaging”. Chris’s print would fall into this category and it certainly would merit.

    I have this same discussion with many of my non-photographer friends. When is a “photograph” not a photograph? At what point during computer manipulation does it cease to be a photograph?

    I think we can all agree it is art. I happen to believe there is a need to distinguish the difference between electronically compositing images and a single photograph that has been enhanced by digital means using Photoshop®, plug-ins etc.

    Does it make the creator any less of a photographer? I would say “no”, but others will surly disagree. The easy solution in this specific case would have been for the underwriters of the contest to make it clear that composite images were either acceptable or not.

  3. Photographer’s that don’t know how to use photoshop are the first ones to complain about a particular image not being a “photograph” lol

    I say stop complaining and jump on the bandwagon people! 🙂 That, or to each their own. You should take pride and comfort in the style YOU feel like doing. Allow others to do the same.

  4. Well said David – manipulating photos has been around since the dawn of photography.

    No worries about the nerdism, Chris uses a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with Gitzo GH3780QR ballhead… definitely a good investment.

  5. I was just having this kind of conversation about Annie Leibovitz’s work and how her retouchers, etc make her photos great, but the point i was trying to make is, that as a photographer, you use your craft to create your vision. even if using a retoucher, if the photographs aren’t in any shape to be edited, the concept and image won’t be usable. I can’t remember who said it, maybe Jay Maisel, but he put it best when he said, ” You can’t polish a turd”. Keep up the great and inspirational work Chris and Chris’s Team.

  6. I do not argue the validity of the artistic talent involved. I do argue, however, that pictures that are unaltered, pictures that have minor corrections, and pictures that are completely fabricated (such as this) should be considered in different groups. This is composite photography, not photography at its base.

    Again, don’t stop creating these images – they’re gorgeous! But do remember that some photos are created without the need for photoshop, and are just as stunning. They are different skills.

  7. Composites are like the X-Men! The next step in evolution. Not only is it still a photo, it’s a super photo! =) But by all means, I give a lot of respect to people that make amazing images without compositing. Everyone’s talents are different.

  8. I don’t mind composite images. I just hate when people try to pass off not so obvious composite photos as images captured by the camera and not say so. Yes it is all art, but should be placed in a separate category than just straight/un-manipualted photography.

  9. I am very new working with composites. But having recently completed one where all the elements were shot separately, I can say a) my final image could not have been a single shot b) it was incredibly difficult to take each shot ensuring that it would work in the final composite. Again, I am new at this so I definitely think practice and time help one visualize, shoot and complete a final composite. With that said, it definitely takes the skill and patience of a photographer/artist to create a piece like the one above.

  10. Composites have been around since the dawn of photography. Double exposures, darkroom compositing, dodging, burning, color manipulation, airbrushing are all familiar techniques. The demon isn’t Photoshop, Photoshop is a tool – nothing more or less. It certainly makes these old techniques easier. Photography is drawing with light – or making art with light, capturing it, manipulating it. Art is what we end up with. Process vs product. So long as one has been honest about the process (don’t pass off something as “in camera” when it isn’t) then all is good.

  11. As long as recording light is involved in the process somewhere then it is photography.

    Composites certainly are not new to photography. Look back at Dada or the Soviet avant-garde. For that matter look at alternative processes and cameraless photography… that goes all the way back to the first photographs. To say it’s not photography is like saying that abstract art like Picasso created weren’t paintings. Just because it’s not straight up camera/print imagery doesn’t mean it’s not photography.

  12. Every one is quick to say that Composite images are not a photograph. But my question is where do you draw the line. As a professional photographer, who is not a photojournalist, every picture I make public has had some amount of photoshop work done to it even if it was simple to increase the contrast. I am sure that most of us can remember the Times cover featuring O. J. Simpson. The only thing done to that picture was some burning and dodging but it sure made him look a lot more like a guilty hardened criminal then the original picture. Skin retouching (or any use of the healing/clone tool) on a portrait is technically a composite picture because photoshop is using the pretty pixels to cover the ugly ones. Does it really make a difference if photoshop got the pixels from the same photograph instead of a different one? Maybe instead of a separate category for pictures that have been altered by photoshop how about a “straight out of camera category.” Of course then you will have to find a way to deal with all those cheaters who set there cameras to “Vivid Color”

  13. We still call movies, movies (or films) and yet most modern films use compositing everywhere (green screen, cgi, miniature models, etc.) and yet no one complains. I’m not big on the above kind of photography, but understand it’s use and desirability.

  14. Photograph not a photograph, who cares. If its good its good and if it sucks it sucks. I will say that if the photographer didn’t do the work on a heavily composited/retouched image they’re a co-creator at best… And I’ve seen some before retouching/after retouching images where the photographer shouldn’t even be getting “co” credit. In my opinion, if you’re using someone else to do the heavy lifting to get your work to look good, you shouldn’t get the credit.

    And please, don’t say “directors don’t make movies on their own”. And don’t tell me “Richard Avedon had a printer to make his images look good.” We’re way past dodging and burning here.

    Again, my opinion which is worth exactly the amount you paid to read it.

  15. It’s a lovely dreamy image, very much to my taste, and I would be so proud to have it in my portfolio. But I do agree, single-image photography and digital visualizations should compete in parallel photo competitions, not in the same category. It’s a different skill set and different possibilities altogether, it’s like you put basketball and volleyball players in one competition on who’s the best player. It’s like a completely new category of art (if you can ever fully categorize art).

    So my definition of a “classic” photography is 1) all elements of the photo were there at the time of the capture, nothing added later 2) I allow minor removals – cleaning up branches of trees or hair of a model 3) if the shot is not a single frame shot, frames must be taken within seconds, or minutes for long exposures.. not hours or days 4) No proportions have been altered either in terms of dimensions of elements or amount of light (I don’t allow “inverting” light – making shades brighter than highlights etc or changing direction of light). There’s so many new categories of photography.. I barely accept HDR as enhancement of camera’s dynamic range bringing it closer to human’s eye dynamic range, but I don’t accept “overdone” HDR – but how do you define which photo is still realistic?
    Having said that, everyone has their own definition, and we will never have an answer to this question, but in the meantime we can enjoy so many new genres of photography and inspirational visualizations composed of photographed elements.

  16. http://www.photographymuseum.com/phofictionsmontages3.html. This is what the photograph made me think of. Some photographers have created their own realities from the beginning of photography. Why this is still some sort of controversy I have no idea. This image is made with a different intention than a news story photo. A greyhound is a fantastic racer but would make a terrible police dog. Similarly this photo is a different animal than a photo intended to more accurately reflect something/”reality” if you want to call it that.

  17. What is so complicated? Photography is simply capturing an image with a camera. Printing is printing and post-processing is post-processing. The artist/photographer’s “vision” or method of achieving that vision may be related, but still is another thing in itself.

    If real photography in its essence is to capture or produce an image using light, then we should accept it as it is with whatever limitations and mistakes it may have (or with any advances in technology it may use). Anything before image capture I consider part of photography, and everything else, like image editing and printing are just that -they did not use light to make the original image and are instead additions or corrections to the photograph.

    Two cents from a beginning photog.

  18. So many photography people want to be “elitist” and say that it is not photography if you manipulate – then you can’t draw the line between darkroom techniques and manipulation, creative vision and use of filters to achieve a certain look, move with the times, there will always be a place for both! Classic photography has it’s place, and photoshopped/creatively enhanced images have their place – if there needs to be different categories for competitions, then fine, but why so much of the view that creative means there is no longer valid forms of photography if not captured in the one frame in camera?

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