I believe a photograph is far more than just a collection of pixels in a digital file. It is a record of our emotional response to what we saw and felt at the time of creating the image.
That physicality from actually being there is the vital element to the whole process, and is what differentiates the real thing from something constructed by somebody on their computer. This touches on an issue around which there is extensive debate, about what is and is not a form of photography; in this case, I am talking about composite images.
This is a topic that always sparks strong responses, as I found out recently. Personally, I find nothing wrong with image manipulation, image blending, and the creation of composites. What I do have a problem with is when people believe that these images are still 100% just photographs.
There are many variables and techniques that affect how we create a photograph. In-camera techniques such as multiple captures, long exposures or lens choices (like tilt and shifts or fish eyes) can alter what we perceive to be " real ". When working on our captured image, dodging, burning, and vignettes are photographic techniques that can be applied in the dark room to enhance what we have, and so I would still regard the result as a photograph. Out in the field, two photographers side by side will often take completely different images with different lens and shutter speed choices. These variables, and the way that different photographers change and play with them to create each resulting image, is what I believe to be the pursuit of photography.
Conversely, when you grab a bit from here and there and combine them into something that doesn’t exist in the real world, then I think this is now deviating away from the a photographs true essence. In my view, this has become more like a collage, a kind of digital artwork. Look at it this way. If you took a box of multi-coloured ceramic tiles, smashed them, mixed them up, and then put them together to create a mosaic picture, would you still regard these as tiles or would you agree with me in thinking they’ve been transformed into something else? Yes, they’re still tiles as individual components, but I believe collectively they have become something new.
I don’t deny that in the past I have been partial to dropping the odd sky or bird into a shot here and there, but I started to find I actually got less enjoyment from the process of photography. I developed a careless attitude when out shooting as I just began to believe I could fix or recreate what I couldn't do or just wasn't happening out on location by using composite techniques. Once I started to really think about what I was doing out in the field, whenever I got something right, and produced an image that I was proud of, my sense of self-belief and confidence became elevated. I travel all over the world at great expense to take photographs, and to be what I would regard as lazy while on a trip, by not working a location to try and improve the shot, would somehow feel disrespectful to myself.
I have found that people from various parts of the world have differing opinions on what is deemed "acceptable". Here in Australia, I have found the attitude towards manipulation to be very liberal minded; almost anything goes. Yet on the other side of the world with my UK friends it’s the complete opposite. I’ve found the British to be much more truthful and sympathetic to a scene. On occasions in the past when I’ve mentioned ‘dropping a sky’ into an
image, it was like the music stopped, everybody looked in disgust, and you could here a pin drop. Maybe that's just the British way, but it’s something that I understand and do relate to more now.
Even though I don’t do much composite work, I have lots of respect for the artwork that others do create. I don’t view this in anyway as cheating at all. Composite photography is just another variation of visual imagery.
Digital art is quite clearly a branch of the visual arts, and is an expression of the artist’s great skill and creativity. It is a construction based, synthesising art akin to painting and the other ‘mark-making’ arts.
Composite artists use photographic material to build or construct a picture, whether digitally, or by a collage of prints; but I think the resulting picture is not itself a photograph. My argument is simple. There are two key features that I believe all photographs share. The first is indexicality (insofar as the represented object is “imprinted” by light and then revealed by a chemical, or electronic process on the image, creating a visual likeness that possesses a degree of accuracy and “truthfulness” unattainable in purely iconic signs such as painting, drawing, or sculpture.) The second is instantaneity, which is the quality of being instant or immediate. Composites, in my opinion, have neither.
At the end of the day, quality and artistic expression are what all of this comes down to. As with any art form, it requires an investment of talent, time, passion and energy, alongside plenty of practice, all to create something powerful enough to have an effect on an audience. As mentioned, I have no objection to composites, nor any other art form, but I just believe that they should be titled accurately to reflect the creation for what it is. If the image is a result of several items from different moments, locations, or photographers, then how can that be called a photograph? This is nothing against the art form, which has just as much potential for beauty and skill as any other, but in my opinion should be labeled properly.