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  • Writer's pictureJames Harrison

Authenticity in Photography

You will have noticed that authenticity is a buzzword these days, for good reason: With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), it has become difficult to distinguish, or even define, what is authentic and what is artificial. This applies as much to photography as it does to text. Not only can images be created entirely by artificial means, but those images can be very difficult to recognize as artificial.

So should we be worried? Photography has always depended on technology to capture images and to manipulate them to enhance their qualities and impact. Such manipulation, whether it be in-camera, in a darkroom, or on a computer, is accepted as an integral part of the photographic process – photography would be dull and uninteresting without it. Now that images can be radically manipulated, or actually created from scratch, using AI, some commentators would like one to believe that this is merely an extension of the long technological history of photography. I beg to differ.

Most people have a certain expectation of photography: This can be described as the expectation of “documentation”, or a “documentary expectation”. Consider the movies. We like to know whether the movie we are watching is a fictional drama, or a documentary, or a “docu-drama” dramatization. In the cases of documentaries and docu-dramas, we tend to be disappointed if we discover that historical facts have been tampered with (as in the case of the recent Napoleon movie). This understandable reaction stems from people’s natural desire to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from falsehood.

In the case of photography, there is an expectation or assumption that a photographic image has a firm foundation is reality. In other words, a photograph is understood to be a “documentary” of a particular moment and a particular scene. This, I believe, is a reasonable assumption on the part of the viewer, and it should be respected. Educated audiences are aware, of course, that images are edited to enhance their impact. An obvious example is black-and-white photography in which colour has been stripped out to intensify the mood and/or the structural or tonal aspects of an image. However, I would argue that such editing does not alter the fundamental documentary nature of the photograph.

Of course there is a vast grey area in this discussion. For example, what about moving or removing objects from an image to “improve” the composition? Is cropping an acceptable alteration of an image? What about removing distracting specks from an image? These are all alterations of what the camera “saw”, so where does one draw the line between authenticity and fakery? Let’s consider the case of this photograph.

This simple picture of waterlilies literally took hours of work to look like this. The first step of the editing process was to crop the image to create a pleasing balance to the composition. Then the various standard editing tools were brought to bear to improve exposure, contrast, colour saturation, sharpness, etcetera. Then it was decided to convert it to a black and white image to emphasize the structural and tonal aspects of the image and to introduce a more serious, meditative atmosphere. And then there was the laborious process of removing hundreds – yes, hundreds – of distracting highlights caused by dust and debris floating in and on the water. These were all tiny meaningless specks, but collectively they detracted significantly from the composition and overall feel of the picture.

The end result of all this work is, I believe, a pleasing composition in which the waterlilies, above and below the water, and the reflections on the water, get the uninterrupted attention that they deserve, and that were the point of taking the photo in the first place. But is the image authentic or fake? Well, was the image altered? Undoubtedly it was. Were any of the essential components of the composition removed? No, except by cropping (which one can also think of as selecting an image or framing it). What components of the image, if any, were removed? Only elements that were minor and transitory, in other words, very small objects that were moving in and out of the scene in a random, haphazard fashion, and without having any effect on the essential subjects of the photograph.

These small objects could just as easily have been absent as present, so removing them changed nothing of importance, except make the picture look “cleaner” and more pleasing. So, in my estimation, the image retains its essential documentary nature and is authentic, not fake. Some photographers may have moved or removed a whole leaf, or flower, or reflection, but that, in my opinion, would cross the authenticity line. Those big edits of content should firstly be done at the time of taking a photograph – that is, when composing one’s original shot – and secondly, when cropping/trimming an image during editing. That, I believe, is where major alteration of documentary photographic content should begin and end.

The elephants in this chat room are, of course, those types of photography that do not particularly intend to be “real” or documentary. Many images in fashion photography, for example, or for advertising, are highly posed or “set up”. It would be inappropriate to expect of those types of photography the same kind of documentary approach that I have described above, and that one would expect of nature, landscape, travel, street or press photography. Another way of putting this would be to say that “authenticity” is relative and means different things, depending on what genre of photography one is talking about. Somewhat reluctantly, I would have to concede that this is so, but with an important caveat: Don’t lie.

By lying I mean creating an illusion of documentary reality which is actually not true, but then masquerading as such. In some photographic genres, the artificiality of their content is self-evident in the nature of the subject matter (e.g. images that are clearly fantastical), but in others, it is not. By all means create a portrait or a landscape using AI, but don’t then claim that it is the real thing. Declare instead that it is the product of AI, or some other hi-tech tool, and is therefore not a genuine photograph, but some entirely different sort of creative graphic product.

I expect there to be a wide range of opinions on this topic, and I would like to hear them. Let me know what you think.

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