The Process: Various thoughts on manipulating images


I was browsing the McCurry exhibit at a Montreal gallery. A couple came in and I overheard the woman comment on one of the portraits—a very simple close-up of a man, shot in India: "Wow...not photoshopped AT ALL...". The tone was dismissive, full of sarcasm, almost angry; obviously assuming the image was totally fake. I was standing next to them, my blood boiling. I couldn't help myself: "That's a picture from 1975" I said "No such thing as Photoshop back then". The woman was slightly startled but quickly recovered "Oh, right... was so much better than digital...".

Film was truth you see, no matter how it looked. Film came straight out of the camera fully formed and was never manipulated in any way, chemicals and darkrooms be damned. That McCurry image was fake until I mentioned it was film—this simple factoid suddenly gave it credence.

Her reaction is sad but easy to understand: very few people ever got to set foot inside a darkroom but everyone has an app on their phone to mess around with digital images. Everyone knows how far this can go and simply assumes that's what we do: photographers get great images through processing, end of story. We no longer capture moments, we invent them wholesale. Great sky there...must've spent a lot of time in Photoshop right? Grin, grin , wink, wink...

The McCurry controversies have obviously added fuel to the fire, but I think this is representative of how a large segment of the population views photography as a whole: as a constant sleight of hand, a series of tricks meant to fundamentally alter reality. My guess is that what that woman in fact perceived as "photoshopped" was nothing more than the light, the contrast, the colours and probably even something as basic as the shallower depth of field used in that image. All elements that photographers are constantly aware of before, during and after capture, but that most people don't fully understand, let alone control.

Photography has always been about manipulation. The lens is a direct manipulation of reality; ditto for the shutter speed, aperture, exposure...hell, the composition and everything we choose to include in our frame is the most basic manipulation of all— it's where we make our stand and decide what gets to be seen. The Act of Photography is and always will be an interpretation of reality, subjected to our personal beliefs and sensibilities, no matter how objective we strive to be.

But how far do we allow ourselves to go at the post-production stage? That's a question we all need to answer for ourselves. In many ways it's the guiding principle that will determine the photographers we become. When I reflect on this topic, I realize I don't have an urge to change the world through processing— but I do want to put my stamp on it. So I decided long ago that I would resolutely interpret the hell out of what I saw, but ideally without ever recontructing or altering a scene beyond recognition. So I don't replace skies or add mountains but I will absolutely play with contrast, toning and exposure. I'll drop things down like crazy or boost them out of the ballpark if that's what it takes. I'll play with colours and I'll push those shadows. I'll switch to black and white and add grain if it works. I'll do anything it takes to get that endorphin surge that comes from knowing I've achieved the frame that gets the message across, that stirs that mysterious impulse. At all times though, I'm trying to emphasize what already exists, attempting to bring out the essence of a particular moment. And sometimes this may also mean accepting to do very little—it's not always about more.

Below: four takes on the opening image—SOOC, pushed (with warm cast), faded and radial filter.

None of this is "the right way" in any sort of absolute sense. It's just what's right for me. You may choose to go much further in terms of processing and this, in turn, will bring its own set of requisites. You may dive into compositing and go on weeks-long quests to gather the perfect elements in order to construct a single image. But whatever the goal, in the end we need to define who we are, so we know what to look for when we're out there.

Regardless of the path we decide to follow, the capture is the origin—a chrysalis contemplating transformation.

Too soon—and yet perfect.

For months now I've been going through the motions. Oh sure, I still shoot...but it hasn't felt exactly right. Not the way it used to. These downturns happen of course, but every time they do—usually during a period of soul-searching and re-examination—that awful lingering question comes up: what if this is it? What if it never comes back? 

Well, this weekend it did. 

Horrible weather forced us indoors. First the rain and then—in a rather intense my god is this really happening morning surprise—snow. Not just cute October flurries that make you long for a hot chocolate and daydream of the holidays...but the white, sticky kind, lingering through the day, covering trees, rooftops and windshields. A shock to the system.

And yet none of it mattered...because through it all, the funk was finally banished. Because I picked up my X-Pro2 and looked at my family and felt that stirring once again, the urge to dig and witness. The reflexes kicked in and the veil lifted. So yeah, winter showed up too soon this year...but there's something perfect about that. Winter is a season for introspection and close quarters, with nowhere to turn. And while traveling the world is fantastic, home is where I need to be.

Home is what I need to see

Shot with the X-Pro2, the XF 35mm f/2 R WR and the XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS





So I'm easing back slowly. I'm following the Trump nightmare, hoping for the best. I had a deadline this week—my Photokina article for the December issue of Photo Life magazine—and it was good to sink my teeth into something substantial. It also forced me to dive into the material I shot in Germany and Belgium, something I'd so far neglected due to recent circumstances. Some prefer to decant what they've captured, leaving some distance before tackling the editing process...I don't usually work that way. I don't mind coming back to a session at some point but I prefer immediacy, having the lingering echo of those images still floating around in my mind's eye. Otherwise it's like I'm flailing, without aim.

I want to thank everyone again for condolence, wishes and thoughts. We held the funeral last Saturday and as much as I dreaded the moment, there's a reason we come together when someone is lost: we're social animals, we need the circle. It's not the conventions or the placated, ready-made's an underlying current we share. Something to lean on as we build our new reality.

But I didn't document any of it. Not this last ceremony, not the multiple "homes" or the hospitals. After 2012, there's no visual record of our mother through my eye. Which is understandable I guess but strange, at least for someone so vocal about preserving and capturing life as a whole. I've thought about it often, how on a certain level I was perhaps being hypocritical by keeping this ordeal invisible. I've documented traces—the family house, mostly—but I purposefully avoided my mom. Maybe it was a lack of courage. But I've never viewed photography as a rational, systematic method of understanding the world; it's always been based on impulse and instinct. And the truth is: I didn't feel like shooting any of it. It would've been artificial, forced. More hypocritical than abstaining from picking up the camera.

So this period of our lives will rely on chemicals and neurones. And I think that's probably fine. 
We're headed to Maricourt for a very rainy weekend. It's Cynthia's birthday tomorrow—time to breathe again.

Have a great weekend guys.


Not much shooting this past week. Not much inspiration, really. There are photos to be chosen, calls to make, music to select…but damn it, Jacob is thirteen today. Rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries—this isn’t Kansas anymore. His voice is lower than it used to be, his demeanour different than it was just a few short months ago.

There’ll be time to grieve in the coming days but this weekend…it’s about cake, life and the future that lies ahead. 

Shot with the X-Pro2 and XF 35mm f/1.4 R

The long, long dream ahead.


It's over. Our mom passed away on monday, in the early hours of the morning—she fell asleep and silently drifted off. Peace, finally. I feel terrible saying that...speaking of relief overshadowing sadness and loss. I've certainly tasted the tears, but as I sit here trying to find the right words, respite is the one constant that binds it all together. Because her life had become the antithesis to everything she was before, all she aspired to and all she hoped. Because we were helpless, trapped in the knowledge that none of it would ever be the same again, that her existence would become even worse than the nightmare we already knew. Because it made no sense—this descent, this relentless vanishing.

Today, for the first time in many, many years, I found myself revisiting happy memories. I remembered her as she used to be and already, as present and raw as it still is, the disease appears to be fading from my consciousness.

I'm not a religious man and don't have faith to hold on to...But I do hope there's a never ending summer evening out there, on some sideways plane of existence; ciccadas on the wind, a purple glow wrapped around the horizon; a perfect replica of our house circa 1978, standing alone on a quiet street, my mom having mint tea with my dad—both of them sitting on the porch after dinner, re-inventing the world as they used to. A long dream, snakelike and restful.

A blue hour
for the next eternity.