On Photographic Reality

I was having a discussion with a friend the other day.   He was of the opinion that photography should represent reality, and that photo manipulation was somehow cheating.   I took the position that no photo is a perfect depiction of reality and that photo manipulation is ancient and ubiquitous.   Nearly everyone assumes that movies are fakes.   Why do people still believe that still photos are "real"?

Photo manipulation occurred just after Henry Fox Talbot invented negative/positive photography, if not before.   Roger Fenton and Mathew Brady moved cannonballs or bodies for photographic effect.   Edward S. Curits posed his indians.   Negatives and prints have been dodged, burned in, penciled, cut, and otherwise manipulated since the 1840s.   No one can make a simple photo of Half Dome that matches what Ansel Adams did in the dark room.   People and things have been cut out, inserted, and moved in photographs for political or artistic purposes.   Photoshop has not changed anything, it just made it easier.

Nearly every photograph I take is manipulated to some extent.   I choose the point of view, the lens, and the f/number even before the picture is taken.   Afterwards, in post processing, I adjust the exposure, contrast and white balance.   I straighten the picture and perhaps adjust the perspective.   After that I may enhance or modify the photo in various ways.   All that is done before the photo is posted on the web or printed.

My friend then conceded that what I did was "normal" processing.   He felt that as long as I worked only with a single image, that it did not constitute "manipulation".   I asked him what was it when I took several images of the same scene, varying the exposure and combined the images to get more range or depth of field.   He was not sure if that was cheating or not.

So, if I am taking a group photo and make multiple images to try to get everyone at his or her best, is it cheating if I move a person from one image to another?   The result is in keeping with the scene and satisfies all of the subjects.   Clearly it is manipulation, but does it violate any unspoken agreement between subjects, viewers and photographer?   How about combining images taken a second or so apart to show the full extent of action?

Finally, I got to combining images for artistic effect.   Years ago I photographed a rural church in England a day or so before Christmas.   I was taken by a donkey in a field near the church, but as I approached I could not get the donkey and the church in the same image.   I photographed them separately, and combined the images in a way that showed what I had originally seen.   Was it cheating to use the machines at my disposal to record the scene that I saw?   No one would fault a painter for doing the same thing.

I do not have agreement yet.