D. FoundView and the Art of Photography


(You may click on a desired question or simply scroll down to the answer)

D-1. Am I not free to do whatever I want to MY photographs? After all, it's a free country, and it doesn't hurt anyone if I choose to delete a tree or add a moon in one of my own photographs.
D-2. Isn't it possible to separate "art" photographs (where any manipulation would be acceptable) from "documentary" photographs (where any manipulation of content would be wrong)?
D-3. Does FoundView allow room for artistic expression in photography?
D-4. Why DO some photographers try to pass off manipulated images as if they are traditional, single-click photographs? If they claim to be creating "art" and not "documentary" photographs, why do they try to trick the viewer into thinking the image is as credible as a documentary photograph?
D-5. Suppose I say that my manipulations are about expressing "truth," and no one else can know what my personal "truth" is. Doesn't this free me to manipulate to my heart's delight?
D-6. We often hear that "In art, the final image is all that matters; how you get there isn't important." Is this true in photography?

D-1. Am I not free to do whatever I want to MY photographs? After all, it's a free country, and it doesn't hurt anyone if I choose to delete a tree or add a moon in one of my own photographs.

Certainly all photographers are free to do whatever they want with their own photographs. It cannot be said often enough that FoundView has nothing to do with limiting or labeling anyone else's art; it is merely a voluntary labeling system for photographers who wish to use it on their own photographs.

However, as anyone who lives in a free society can attest, having the right to do an action doesn't make the action right. Having the right to conceal from viewers manipulations of content in realistic-looking photographs doesn't mean that these deceptions "don't hurt anyone," as it is sometimes claimed. The reality is that synthesized and composite images passed off as real, single-click photographs hurt everyone involved in photography because they damage the believability of all realistic-looking photographs. For most photographers, any damage to the trustworthiness and integrity of their chosen means of expression is a very real injury—regardless of the rationales offered by those who inflict such damage through undisclosed image manipulation. To repeat: photographers who aren't trying to deceive their viewers have no reason to conceal manipulations of content.

So yes, you're free to do whatever you want to your photographs. However, if you wish to respect the wishes of viewers and other photographers, don't try to present your photographs as something that they're not. If they aren't real, single-click photographs even though they look it, the viewer obviously will want to be made aware of this.

D-2. Isn't it possible to distinguish "art" photographs (where any manipulation would be acceptable) from "documentary" photographs (where any manipulation of content would be wrong)?

No, because "documentary" photographs are widely considered to be "art." Thus by itself the term "art" does not alert the viewer to content manipulations in realistic-looking photographs.

Photography battled for decades to be accepted as an art form, and now that the battle has been won, art museums routinely display the work of photojournalists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, and Sebastiao Salgado. In other words, all kinds of "documentary" photographs of actual events, news, people, objects, and scenes from everyday life are now fully accepted as "art." The "art" label does not magically free realistic-looking photographs from viewers' expectations of trustworthiness.

The "manipulation = art" rationale is popular with photographers who get caught trying to pass off content-manipulated photographs as single-click, unmanipulated photographs. But they're not the only photographers creating "art." As noted above, "art" also describes photographs in which content has not been manipulated. Thus the description "art photograph" is of no help to viewers, who can judge for themselves whether or not any photograph is "art." What viewers can't tell just by looking is whether or not a realistic-looking photograph shows all of the things recorded by the camera when the shutter was clicked. Viewers can't tell which kind of "art photograph"—manipulated or unmanipulated—they are seeing.

Granted, viewers do not hold "synthesized" art photographs to the same no-manipulation standard as "single-click" art photographs (e.g., the museum examples above). But viewers' expectations of the images also vary accordingly, because they know that it's much easier to create a remarkable image with post-shutter manipulations than it is with a decisive single click of the shutter (see Notes). Thus in order to interpret either kind of art photograph fairly, the viewer needs to know beforehand whether the content of the image has been altered (see also C-6).

Every photographer is free to go either way with every picture he or she creates, but no one can have it both ways. One can't ignore the no-manipulation rules that give documentary photographs their credibility and then ask viewers to bestow on the manipulated images documentary-like credibility (see E-4 and E-5). Every realistic-looking photograph that has undergone manipulation of content is either presented as a synthesized image or it's a deception (it can't be "documentary," of course, because its content has been manipulated). If the creator of such an image isn't trying to deceive the viewer—if he sincerely wants the viewer to interpret it as "content-manipulated" art instead of "documentary" art—he should clearly tell the viewer up front that regardless of how realistic the image may look, it's actually synthesized.

Bottom line: Photographers who aren't trying to deceive their viewers have no reason to hide manipulations of content in photographs. The alibi of "art" is irrelevant when rationalizing undisclosed manipulations, because countless people (fans of Cartier-Bresson, for example) feel passionately both that photography is an art and that its trustworthiness is one of its most valuable characteristics. FoundView proponents believe that this trustworthiness should not be ruined by a small minority of photographers who present realistic-looking photographs that have secretly been manipulated and then claim—after the ruse is exposed—that the manipulations should be excused under the rubric of "art."

D-3. Does FoundView allow room for artistic expression in photography?

Of course. FoundView imposes no limits at all on creative expression, dealing instead only with the presentation of realistic-looking photographs. FoundView proponents believe that all manner of such expression is legitimate but they maintain that when an artistic medium implies veracity—as realistic-looking photography does—the artist should be honest with the audience. Thus FoundView celebrates photographers' freedom of expression while honoring photography's unique ability to record the world with an accuracy unparalleled by any other artistic medium. The integrity and value of this singular quality must be preserved.

What, to the viewer, is the appeal of the work of Cartier-Bresson, Adams, Weston, and other masters of "straight" photography? Their masterpieces cannot be considered apart from their medium; the photographs wouldn't mean the same thing if they were compositions in watercolor or pastel. In other words, their images have a unique value because they are photographs. The viewer's esteem for these photographers is directly tied to the knowledge that these artists captured the remarkable subjects of their legendary photographs with a single, decisive click of the camera shutter (as opposed to gradually assembling the images later by rearranging and reshaping elements from multiple photographs). No one would suggest that these photographers shied away from personal interpretation or expression, even though their post-shutter manipulations were almost invariably limited to tone and not to content. "Artistic expression" is not a synonym for "undisclosed manipulations of content"—not when it comes to realistic-looking photographs. (Cartier-Bresson's Gare St. Lazare is cited in E-8 and he is quoted in C-15 and E-12; Adams's Moonrise is discussed in E-8.)

For many photographers, the timeless challenge of discovery, of seeing what others do not see and capturing it within the boundaries of a single frame, is the essence of photography. Those who are able to notice such things in the world and capture them in a photograph have achieved something very different than have those who combine parts of several pictures into one image (see also C-1). FoundView is designed to ensure that those who value the long tradition of photographic integrity can continue to work in the same vein even in the digital era.

D-4. Why DO some photographers try to pass off content-manipulated images as if they are traditional, single-click photographs? If they claim to be creating free-form "art" and not "documentary" photographs, why do they try to trick the viewer into thinking the image is as credible as a documentary photograph?

Regarding the first question: in a word, precisely because doing so is deceptive. There's no reason to hide manipulations of content except to deceive the viewer. A prominent landscape photographer who occasionally produces composite photographs writes, "I'd have to agree that there is an intended deception [in my composite images]. I am trying to make the image appear 'real,' real in the sense that it is designed to appear to be a photograph made of a single landscape at a particular moment in time, not two or more landscapes photographed at different times and perhaps in places far from one another."

Regarding the second question: this claim is not usually made for obviously fantastical, non-realistic-looking photographs (where the success of the image doesn't depend on fooling the viewer) but in realms where the photographer is counting on the viewer's belief in the traditional "documentary"-like veracity of photographs. For example, landscape, travel, adventure, street, architectural, sports, nature, and wildlife photographs easily lend themselves to deceptive manipulations because they traditionally have been vested with documentary-like credibility. To come right out and tell the viewer that the content of such pictures has been manipulated would ruin the effort to convince viewers that they're seeing the work of a very talented landscape, travel, adventure, street, architectural, sports, nature, or wildlife photographer (as opposed to a "mere" artist spinning fantasies, apparently). Thus the viewer's trust is key to the success of such deceptions (see also E-4 and E-5).

There are additional specific motivations for passing off undisclosed manipulations as one-click photographs, including:

Profit. Some publishers, especially in the greeting card and calendar market, don't care whether the images they disseminate are FoundView or are identified to the contrary; if it looks anything like a remarkable, single-click photograph, they'll pay a premium for it no matter how much it was manipulated. There will always be hungry photographers who, through undisclosed manipulations, can fill the need—even to the detriment of personal reputation.

A competitive edge. The photographic "stock" market (sale of photographs that are "on file" for multiple reuse) is extremely competitive. In some of the most competitive stock photo markets (including calendars and greeting cards), a photographer whose ethical principles preclude unidentified image manipulations is at a serious disadvantage compared to a photographer who will manipulate an image in any way necessary to make a sale (for example, see Notes). Sometimes photographers who manipulate forms and shapes in images will make a halfhearted effort to point out such manipulations to the publisher, but it's clearly to their advantage if the manipulated images are "accidentally" published without a disclosure label. As a leading proponent of digitally adding various animals to nature photographs told Popular Photography, "If you sold the picture to a calendar company and they simply used it without saying how the picture was made, I don't see this as either misleading or morally reprehensible." This perspective isn't surprising: photographers who gain a competitive edge by passing off fabricated images as single-click photographs obviously don't "mind" when a publisher fails to reveal such deceptions to the viewer—in fact, they're probably quite pleased.

Self-aggrandizement. It's ironic that a photographer would use deceit to enhance his or her reputation, but until the deception is revealed the strategy can actually be quite effective. Viewers know how rare it is to find photographs that are both excellent and made with a single click of the shutter. Photographers can't fool viewers about which photographs look excellent, but they can fabricate composite images that look like impressive single-click photographs. Viewers who interpret such images to be excellent, single-click photographs will temporarily regard the images' creator as more talented than he or she actually is—but only for as long as the photographer can maintain the hoax.

Sometimes photographers will even use their past honors (won, as such awards are in nature and wildlife photography, for unmanipulated photographs) to deceive buyers of their newer, highly-manipulated photographs. For example, if the buyer of a nature photographer's latest calendar—which is full of undisclosed composites—reads that it was created by an "award-winning nature photographer," the buyer naturally assumes that the images in the calendar are not manipulated. The deceit may seem commercially shrewd on the photographer's part in the short term, but it entails trading off his long-term reputation of integrity. Once the viewer catches the photographer trying to pass off even a single undisclosed manipulation, the viewer will always be suspicious about all of the photographer's images ("He probably manipulated this one too"). The photographer then learns what authors and journalists have long known: to create fiction and present it as nonfiction can irreparably damage one's reputation. (See also E-5.)

FoundView has no problem with image manipulations that are presented or identified honestly. Digital technologies have brought into being a powerful new set of tools that can be used to create remarkable images. But when viewers are cynically tricked into thinking that composites are actually single-click photographs—solely so that the images' creators can make a sale or be temporarily regarded as better photographers than they really are—the credibility of the entire medium is jeopardized. The only effective weapons against undisclosed image manipulation are the ethical integrity of other photographers and the small but powerful FoundView checkmark.

D-5. Suppose I say that my manipulations are about expressing "truth," and no one else can know what my personal "truth" is. Doesn't this free me to manipulate to my heart's delight?

Certainly photographers, like all artists, are free to manipulate their artworks all they want; FoundView clearly does not in any way limit artistic freedom (see A-4). But when fabricated images are falsely presented as single-click photographs—when it is viewers and not merely photographs that are being manipulated—this issue moves from simple matters of personal artistic freedom into the realm of causing genuine harm to other artists (see D-1). Any action that damages the livelihood and reputation of other photographers is no longer a purely private matter (and deceptions of the viewing public that tarnish the integrity on which other photographers depend are no exception to this). Thus FoundView proponents only ask one small thing, for the sake of viewers and of other photographers, present and future, who wish to preserve the credibility of realistic, single-click photographs: IF your images look like realistic, single-click photographs, THEN you should be forthright and honest about manipulations of content that are not discernible to the viewer. Of course, it's unrealistic to expect 100-percent compliance with this modest request for honesty. Some photographers are making a living—and a very nice one—by deceiving viewers into thinking that highly-manipulated photographs are actually not manipulated at all. That's why FoundView concentrates on labeling images that have not had forms and shapes manipulated. (See E-2.)

The word "truth" as used in this question is usually shorthand for "Undisclosed manipulations that I want to get away with." Indeed, the term "truth" is so casually and ambiguously tossed around in contemporary artistic discussions that it is never used to make the case for FoundView; it does not appear once on this web site (except in this question—and then only in quotation marks—and in the Notes, when quoting others who have used it). Instead, the discussion here is limited to "honesty" and "veracity" (does the photograph show the viewer the forms and shapes that were recorded by the camera the moment the shutter was clicked?); "believability" (can the viewer believe what the picture appears to show?); and "integrity" and "credibility" (if the nature of the manipulations was revealed to the viewer, would it hurt the trustworthiness of this image in particular and of photography in general?). (Note the emphasis on the viewer. During its creation and evolution FoundView continually took into account what typical viewers expect from photographs so that the standard wouldn't be merely "by photographers" or "for photographers." See also E-4 and E-5.)

D-6. We often hear that "In art, the final image is all that matters; how you get there isn't important." Is this true in photography?

In some kinds of photography, perhaps, but in realistic-looking photography, no, it's not true. The nature of the medium (and the fact that most viewers have experience taking photographs—see E-7) means that a realistic-looking image implies a believability to the viewer that, say, a watercolor painting would not. Thus anytime a photograph looks anything like a depiction of an actual scene, object, or event, the evolution of the image matters greatly to the viewer. For example, a picture of a 1,200-pound polar bear charging across the ice toward a lone Arctic explorer means something very different to the viewer when it is an unmanipulated record of an actual event than when it is revealed to be a composite of two photographs, one of the bear and one of the explorer. Granted, the composite version simulates a scene that theoretically "could have happened" (Arctic explorers and polar bears both being indigenous to the same areas; see also E-8), but that alibi matters little to the viewer of the photograph. The viewer simply wants to know whether the scene depicted did or did not happen—and whether the photographer was quick enough to capture the unpredictable action with a single click of the camera shutter (see also E-15).

As the polar bear example shows, it isn't just "news" pictures that are relevant when discussing how photographs were made. Whether it's a landscape, wildlife, adventure, nature, travel, architectural, or street photograph, most viewers are understandably curious if the image looks both impressive and realistic. Their first question often is, "Where did you take this remarkable picture?" Discovering that apparently real scenes are fabrications or composites that were not actually captured with a single click of the camera shutter usually leads to disappointment on the part of the viewer and consequent disillusionment with the reliability of all photographs. Any photographer who conceals post-shutter manipulations of a realistic-looking photograph's content is implying that the final physical product—the end—is all that matters. The means—how the image was made, including the myriad personal choices made just prior to "the decisive moment" when the shutter was clicked—are negated or dismissed as unimportant (see also E-10 and E-12). Viewers of realistic photographs (and most photographers) vehemently disagree with approach.

Bottom line: when it comes to photographs that look realistic, the "ends" do not justify any "means" necessary. If an image looks like a single photograph made with a single click of the shutter, whether it is or isn't one always matters to the viewer. Of course, for images that don't look like a single photograph made with a single click of the shutter—or those that are presented or identified to make it clear that they're not so—the viewer will not be as concerned (if at all) with how the image was made.


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