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The Marvelous Toy: Evaluating Photoshop

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Historians correctly look at journalists as people who, though well-intentioned, rarely get it exactly right.

The simple fact that reporters on deadline are working in the heat of the moment – with no way to gauge, much less to see, the long term effect of the events they chronicle – all but assures that what they write will lack real perspective or context.

Even though I have spent the better part of my life as a journalist, enjoying what I believe to be the best job in the world, I agree with this assessment. Still, I would not have traded a minute of my 20-plus years as a political reporter in Washington, offering my contribution to what often is called "the first draft of history."

[Being in the middle of things – be they presidential elections, scandals like Watergate, the return of US hostages from Iran, even urban riots – was simply too exciting to trade in for a 9-5 office job.]

A parallel, I think, can be made with the current state of photography.

What we now are seeing – in the short term – is a delighted embrace of tools like Photoshop, which have given nearly all photographers, amateur and professional alike, the ability to transmogrify, enhance and otherwise "improve" their pictures, often with lightning speed – and, as important, at no risk of permanent damage to the original image (provided you press the right buttons.) Photographers, artists, illustrators all have used this marvelous toy to create often-surreal images, combining many elements into one, or conversely, so changing the nature of a single image as to make it unrecognizable from the original.

With what I concede may be a large body of opinion to the contrary, I think it simply is too early to say how good all of this is. Or more to the point: how useful a tool Photoshop – and all other electronic photo editing technologies – actually may be.

Or, for that matter, how long-lasting an influence Photoshop will have on photography, which itself is a comparatively young medium and art form.

Hell, right now everybody's having too much fun with it.

Here I should add a caveat: in discussing Photoshop (and for brevity's sake, I will use this term to encompass all computerized/digital photo editing) I am not talking about its invaluable help as a tool to render detail in existing images, whether on film or digital. That is to say, its use as a "dry" darkroom. That aspect of Photoshop clearly is a boon, if not a Godsend. Nor am I talking about Photoshop's utility in compressing images for transmission or for otherwise facilitating the quick dissemination of pictures. Any commercial or news photographer who deals with far-flung clients knows how useful Photoshop can be in helping get images from Point A to Point B.

Rather, my concern centers on Photoshop's unwitting ability to undermine what for want of a better term is traditional photography, especially documentary or news photography's sometimes tenuous role as a recorder of what actually happened.

In the July Popular Science magazine writer Jessica Snyder Sachs discusses the idea that eyewitness memories often are faulty. But what she adds to the discussion, based on interviews with experts in the field, is how genuinely haphazard the process of visual recollection actually is.

"In some ways," she notes, "...the analogy of video replay [when applied to memory] can be dangerously inaccurate, as it suggests a library of retrievable real footage....In fact, we assemble our memories by patching together broken pieces of stored information and then filling in the blanks..."

"One has only to view a brain-wave animation of a person viewing a familiar face..." Sachs writes. "The act of remembering that face produces a flickering aurora borealis of electrical activity as the brain tries to assemble disparate bits of information pulled from every lobe of the cerebral cortex rather than [from] a single storage space."

Elizabeth Loftus, a University of California psychologist and a leading expert on what Sachs calls the malleability of eyewitness testimony, is quoted thusly: "Memory is a creative event, born anew every day....You fill in the holes every time you reconstruct an event in your own mind."

What does this have to do with Photoshop's effect on photography? Simply this: Our own imperfect memories are influenced too often by our own too-helpful brains. Given that, I find (or found) it reassuring that the brainless, all-seeing (though actually unseeing) eye of a camera lens simply records what's in front of it, providing an immutable baseline of visual information for others to interpret. [Note: that interpretation necessarily will weigh what the photographer behind the lens chose to document, or not to document.]

This ability to be objective – at least in terms of recording exactly what's in front of the lens – is unique to photography. All other art forms: writing, painting, sculpting, etc, are subject to interpretation (and therefore conscious or unconscious editing) by the brain. At the risk of too much navel-gazing, I grant that what a photographer chooses to shoot is itself a form of editing. But once that happens the camera records with total, pitiless, objectivity

All of this may not mean jack to someone who gets off by Photoshopping dog's ears onto George Bush. But I submit that the mere fact of Photoshop – given its ubiquity and relative ease of use – can have an insidious, if unintended, effect on all news and documentary photography. As I wrote nearly a decade ago, amid the first stirrings of digital manipulation: It's not that an evil cabal of editors is putting bags under the first lady's eyes, or that the Pope is shown dancing in a nightclub in Paris when he was saying mass in Rome.

It's that these things could happen – and that no one would be the wiser, especially now, given the seamlessness of a well-Photoshopped image.

This is the old 'just one little drink' argument. Is it OK to remove, say, a telephone pole from a news picture if it improves the composition and can be done by just pushing a button and dragging a mouse? No it isn't. Crop it out, if you like, but don't change the content of the picture by removing or adding anything. Otherwise, sooner or later, you will fall totally off the wagon and wind up like Brian Walski.

Is it any wonder that I shudder for my profession, given the recent case of Walski, the ex-LA Times photographer who Photoshopped himself right out of a job after he deliberately combined two of his good pictures from Iraq into one superb one and transmitted it to his paper as if nothing were different or amiss? For the record, in an interview with Photo District News after his firing, Walski said that he had "tweaked" pictures in the past – doing things like removing telephone poles.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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Venice and Lubec: The Obvious (?) Parallels