Photography or Digital Art

When I visited Edinburgh last August, I went along to the International Exhibition of the Edinburgh Photographic Society. This is an annual event with over 3000 submissions from across the world and around about 200 acceptances. So it should represent the best of amateur photography.

Yet, when I wandered around the exhibition, I was disappointed. I reckon that at least 50% of the accepted images were ‘Digital art’, created in Photoshop or other image manipulation programs. They were either composites that were created by combining image elements or images that had been so heavily manipulated as to be unrecognisable from the original camera image. These images were very impressive and demonstrated their creator’s imagination and skill. But, while they are definitely digital art, for me they are not photographs.

I think that an important distinction between photography and other art forms is that photography allows you to ‘capture the moment’. Whether this is a ray of sunshine piercing the clouds in a landscape, a characteristic expression in a portrait or a bird feeding in a nature photograph, photography allows us to capture and show events in a way that is impossible using other media. Photographers such as Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson were great because they had an exceptional ability to recognise and reveal these key moments.

Once you start creating composite images or extensively manipulating images in Photoshop, you are not capturing the moment but are creating another kind of digital art. I have no problem with this but I do have a problem when these are exhibited alongside ‘traditional photographs’. Instead of considering these to be the same and compared with each other, I think they should be considered and exhibited separately.

This is not just an issue for photographers who want to enter competitions and exhibit their work. Instagram supports all sorts of manipulations to ‘improve’ your images. When you see a picture on Instagram, you have no idea how this relates to the original image.

Of course, the response to this concern is that everyone uses Photoshop or some other image manipulation program so where do you draw the line. Raw images need processing because of the way that camera sensors work so insisting that images can’t be manipulated is impractical.

In nature photography competitions, you may use techniques that enhance the image but do not materially effect the content of the image. You may not remove, relocate or add elements of the image. It was notable in the Edinburgh exhibition how the nature photographs stood out and they seemed far more real to me.

I think that we need a similar approach for ‘real photographs’. I would modify the rules slightly to allow for a small fraction of intrusive elements to be deleted from a photo such as a mobile phone mast in a landscape or a skin blemish in a portrait. No additions or relocation of components should be allowed.

I like real photographs and I want to go to photographic exhibitions, like the Edinburgh exhibition, to admire and be inspired by the best photographs in the world. Let’s put Photoshop art in a separate exhibition and focus on photography that reflects photographic rather than Photoshop skill.