Is Digital Imaging Different from Photography?

Editors Comment: I find this article from May 2000 fascinating, so I chose to leave it in the Let’s Get Digital Archives. Technology has come a long way since this was written!

The other day, a student in my intermediate color class brought in what appeared to be a wonderful landscape photograph in a magazine he had just purchased. He exclaimed that this was the quality of work he hoped to produce some day. However, as he reached the description of how the image was produced, located several pages later in the magazine, his mood quickly evolved from anticipation through disappointment to dejection. The image he was so taken with had been assembled in a computer, consolidating components from seven different photographs.

He complained that he had been tricked by both the magazine and the so-called photographer. He protested that the scene as presented in the magazine had never existed in reality and shouldn’t have been presented in a photographic context. His ire wasn’t unique. Other students had much the same reaction. In fact, these sentiments were reiterated throughout the next several classes.

The controversy isn’t new in my classes. The general consensus of opinion among my students has been that digital imaging is different from photography, and there should be some way to identify an image that has been assembled digitally as opposed to a “pure” photograph. As has been the case so many times, I believe my students are absolutely right. There should be a way to identify digital composites. If we don’t address the fundamental issues this confusion of photography and graphic art brings up and we continue to present and accept composites as photographs, we run a very real risk of having both digital imaging and photography rejected by the general public.

As this situation continues, it would seem that we have made very little progress in establishing standards for photography, choosing, instead, to simply return to the golden age of pictorialism. We’re going to re-fight the battle that raged in the 1930’s. If you’ll remember the history of photography, in the early part of the twentieth century, the pictorialists held that “any trick, contrivance or convenience (was) acceptable in the production of an image as long as it served the final product.” This brought a reaction from such noted photographers and groups as Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Group f*64, etc. And it seems that those practicing digital imaging today are in agreement with the pictorialist philosophy.

There are some steps we have to take to correct this situation:

First, we have to stop calling “digital imaging”- the assembly of an image in a computer- “digital photography.” Digital imaging is not photography, and photography is certainly not digital imaging. While there is some crossover here (we can present photographs in a digital environment, and we can present digital images through photo-style printing), there are a number of major differences. This is not to say one is “better” than the other–simply that they are different.

Second, we have to begin to differentiate between digital imaging and photography from a fundamental standpoint. This is slightly different from simply not calling digital imaging digital photography. It is making the differentiation between a scene as we, the photographers, saw it and a scene as we would like it to be.

Photography is about the subject–what the photographer saw in that subject as it existed in reality, and what was so compelling in the subject that it had to be photographed. To alter, add, or delete elements of a subject is to present the subject as the photographer wanted to see it, not as it existed in its reality. Digital imaging is about reforming and reshaping the subject as we would liked to have seen it.

Third, we have to develop a way to identify digitally assembled images as digital images. One idea is attached to this e-mail. This small emblem or logo could be either floated on the image and printed with it (the background color could be made transparent so it would be as unobtrusive as possible), or it could be printed with a caption line.

If we don’t take steps now to set this differentiation, it’s possible that photography will simply become fodder for the digital imagers. A “digital photographer” could accumulate a number of stock images and a copy of Photoshop and assemble his “photographs” without ever having to make a single exposure. (While this possibility may seem extreme, there has been an explosion in the “royalty-free, restriction-free” stock photo market.)

This is not to say that a photograph can’t be made with an all-digital system. It’s the presentation of the photograph that’s the key. If the scene is presented as it was originally photographed by the photographer–with only enough processing to make it look as good as possible on screen, it still falls in the realm of photography. If there are elements added or deleted that alter the scene as it was photographed, then it’s a digital image. (Again, this is not to say one is “better” that the other, simply different.)

Note: This standard for photography also applies to time-honored darkroom techniques such as negative sandwiching, air brushing, pin registration mask printing, etc. These were used in the past but have fallen out of favor with the development of sophisticated digital imaging systems.

Finally, this request for clarification is certainly not an anti-digital statement and should not be taken that way. Digital imaging has its place in the world of visual expression and needs to start establishing itself apart from photography. If it doesn’t, both digital imaging and photography will suffer.

An editorial by Don Althaus

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

1 Comment on Is Digital Imaging Different from Photography?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.