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.