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What is photography?

Trying to answer this question is obviously challenging. I’m not approaching the task with the assumption to wind up with the definitive answer at the end of the journey. In fact, I don’t even think it’s fundamental to come up with a conclusion, most likely all the opposite. As with any journey, we can learn more as we go through it than at the end of it. There are things we learn during the transition that can definitely enrich us, regardless of the outcome.

Every time I asked myself the question “What is photography?”, my mind started wandering on territories like art, techniques, technology, truth, society, and medium: can a photograph represent the truth? Is it OK to use Photoshop to manipulate a photograph? How much manipulation is enough? How has photography changed since the appearance of social media platforms? Is photography art? What is art in the first place?

These are not easy questions to answer, but I’ll try to expand on a few of them.
In regards to how social media has affected photography, I wrote here and here. This time, I’ll focus on photography.

As with any discipline, there are two aspects to consider: the theory and the technique (as for the practice, we all know the mantra “go out and shoot”).

The principle of the technique is that the camera, through the lens, captures the light and impresses the film. With a modern digital camera, the light received is processed by an image sensor and stored to a memory card, though the idea is basically the same.
Despite the process being so simple, it is the reason for many debates.

The thing is, a photograph is technically never finished on camera. There is always a posthumous process that takes part, which is the development. The most basic setup requires a stage where the photograph goes through a chemical process before it becomes the final print. Again, this process is not much different from what we do today. We take the digital file into a raster graphics editor (such as Photoshop, Capture One, Lightroom, etc.) to ultimately develop the raw file into a more elaborate final image. If we take into account another step that lies in between, which is the presets the digital camera comes with, allowing the photographer to use a filter that somewhat alters what the camera captured in the first place, then you can easily see how things get complicated. Not to mention the camera itself! Each camera is built according to the manufacturer’s preferences, hence a brand can render more vibrant colors, another more muted ones, a third one can enhance the contrast, and so on.

If there’s a process at work that somehow alters the nature of what we captured, that is the true image that we experienced at the moment we took the photograph, what’s the point of being prescriptive? The result will not be the exact representation of the source anyway. That said, there’s a big difference between, say, saturating the colors vs. replacing a sky. I believe that tweaking the contrast, the saturation, adding a gentle vignette, or a subtle dodge and burn are all operations that lie in the world of basic post-processing, as long as they are not pushed too much. There are adjustments we make to correct parts of the photograph that might be weak, such as exposure, sharpness, and contrast.

There’s art, and there’s technique.


People who approach photography, or more in general art, from a taste standpoint, are confusing art with food. This attitude, which usually comes from people who, in this type of conversation, back up their reasoning with arguments based on freedom — and most likely will react negatively to any type of rule-based response — is a very poor, naively constructed statement. Whoever remembers some art history, and hence will connect the dots, will notice how this misunderstanding grows its roots from a rather superficial reading of the Avant-Garde. When the Dadaists brought the ready-made into galleries, it wasn’t in response to a taste need. But that very moment, which now goes back more than a century ago, has been misread by many as a form of “I can do whatever I want as there are no rules”. Even Dadaism had its own rules. In fact, its principle was to annihilate itself, for Dadaism in order to succeed, had to die, which is exactly what happened. Taking that approach (possibly, without even knowing where the principle originates from) is a convenient way to barricade themselves behind a wall in order to prevent any possible critique. Then Pop Art made the confusion even worse.

Anyway, I personally find that attitude rather pretentious, because it sounds like “since other artists did it before me, therefore I can do it too”. By the way. those who follow this principle are basically considering themselves nothing less than artists like Picabia, Tzara, Duchamp, and Man Ray to name a few. But other than personal glorification, which after all is purely naive and can be more harmful than helpful, the worst effect this mentality has is preventing people from learning and understanding the rules, especially in the case they want to later break those very rules. And considering how often the rules are being broken nowadays, the world should be filled by artists. The truth is, most of the time the rules are broken to save the image, to create what wasn’t there in the first place, to push the post process as far as it can go, to depict an idealization of beauty: over-saturated landscapes, glowy-bokeh portraits, unrealistic sharpened macro, in other words, to lie.

In photography’s early decades, photographs were expected to be idealized images. This is still the aim of most amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful, like a woman, a sunset.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

After all, this type of approach pays off when it comes to collecting new likes on Instagram. A fake image that obeys the current standard of beauty, approved by fake likes, and that lives only for a short moment. What an irony!

(and Technicalities)

As we have seen, even the most basic of post-processing can take the image to extreme results. What then? In order to keep the photograph balanced, there are tools that can help us in that sense. The zone system and the histogram can be solid guides. Of course, there are situations where the histogram can be misleading, and we have to let our judgment lead us. Now, these tools give us a reference in terms of what range we can use, although that doesn’t mean we have to stick to it. But if we want to take the freedom to disregard that reference, it must be for a valid reason.

Eric Kim

Perhaps the picture above might have some impact on someone. The author painted that silhouette in order to make it stand out. Without this intervention, the image would be just another snapshot of a man walking in a street. Is this still a photograph?


Another debate you may hear quite often, still in the post-processing context, is that photographers have been post-processing their work since the dawn of photography through techniques such as Pictorialism, Photogram (with some adaptations like Rayograph, Schadograph), and so on.
These techniques have been around for more than a century, so why should they be any different today? The principle, after all, is the same.

Coming to the conclusion that post-processing of any type is still photography because it has been done for decades before us, doesn’t look at the nature of the post-processing itself, hence it doesn’t answer whether those techniques are part of what can be considered photography or not. The artists who elaborated on those techniques didn’t call them photography but rightly gave them a different name. If photography is capturing what is in front of the camera, through the lens, in what way would a photogram still be photography? Furthermore, in which way should Pictorialism be considered photography? Manipulating the photograph by adding elements (for instance, with the use of brushes in the case of Pictorialism) is changing the nature of the photograph itself by adding something that wasn’t there in the first place. It’s very different from, say, increasing the contrast. When we introduce a new element we are taking the photograph into another territory which can be graphic design, pictorial, collage, and so on. It is not photography anymore, rather photography is used, among other techniques, in order to create something new or different. Whether the outcome is art or not, is another topic and has nothing to do with discipline. But what the discipline is called is crucial, otherwise, the risk is to distort the very principle that gave birth to the discipline. Manipulating the words is manipulating the meaning.

If we take into account this basic, but quintessential concept, we look at the photo in the example above in a different light. Naturally, all of this is for me an epistemological curiosity, not an evaluation in terms of quality. I’m not here to judge whether that image is a nice photograph or not. I find it extremely useless to evaluate a piece of work from an appreciation standpoint. This type of approach is cold, it prevents the discussion from moving forward. What I find intriguing is if I consider that image a photograph at all, and at this point, the answer should be rather obvious.

The illusion of truth

Photographs don’t tell the truth. In the best case scenario (when all the possible alterations discussed above don’t take place), a photograph represents a portion of the space, converted to a flat surface, framed uniquely by the photographer, capturing a frozen moment in time, and lastly, distorting to some extent the perception of the physical space in relation to what lens is used.

Most likely the same photograph of the same subject matter taken by different photographers will be different from each other, or will look oddly similar if preconceptions and cliché take place:

The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s (among them Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film—the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry. In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively indiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

Photography is the first example of a modern, technological extension. What the camera captures is not the thing, but the auto-referential representation of photography itself. When we look at a picture what we’re looking at is the photograph as a container, a manifestation of the medium itself, the photograph becomes the content. When we browse through the multitude of pictures on Instagram, we are not looking at photographs. What we’re looking at is Instagram.

As Wittgenstein argued for words, that the meaning is the use—so for each photograph. And it is in this way that the presence and proliferation of all photographs contributes to the erosion of the very notion of meaning, to that parceling out of the truth into relative truths which is taken for granted by the modern liberal consciousness.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

Our distorted perception starts even before the shoot, the moment we prepare for the photo we pose using the best possible light and location as if it is not the medium to have to adapt to our condition but the opposite.

They take me outdoors (more “alive” than indoors), put me in front of a staircase because a group of children is playing behind me, they notice a bench and immediately (what a windfall!) make me sit down on it. As if the (terrified) Photographer must exert himself to the utmost to keep the Photograph from becoming Death. But I, already an object, I do not struggle.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

The story that never was

A photograph can’t tell a story, it is only a frozen moment in time which gives us no clue of the events before and after nor the surrounding circumstance as the image is restricted to a frame, a portion of the space experienced at a given time. When people refer to the story behind a photograph, they are only hooked by the feeling or the sentiment the photograph can evoke. There’s no story that can be narrated by a single frame.

The thing is, photographs garner some marginal pseudo-value, storytelling-wise, as long as people build the story after the fact or a strong lexical connection takes place as images are tied to words. Pictures have become the shortcut to meaning, especially today since the lack of meaning has surrendered to the language of signs. That is why it is so common to see titles going along with photographs. The flatter and duller the photograph, the stronger the title: the final step of a post-processing stage meant to create a pseudo-value.

There can be no evidence, photographic or otherwise, of an event until the event itself has been named and characterized. And it is never photographic evidence which can construct—more properly, identify—events; the contribution of photography always follows the naming of the event. What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness. Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

I think that there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability… They do not tell stories. They show you what something looks like. To a camera.

Garry Winogrand


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