Moonlit Morning at Pearl Street Pavilion

Retouching Reality – Helpful or Heretical?

I recently posted this shot of a seaside pavilion in the pre-dawn light in Beach Haven, New Jersey. As usual, I retouched the photo to fine tune the relationship between light and dark areas, tamping down the sky and bringing shadows up in the grass and dunes. Otherwise this was taken in camera. There was one bright star in the sky above that blurred a bit due to a long exposure. I decided to add the moon to round out the composition and give it a little more interest. Some of my followers congratulated me on the “composite” photograph or “digital art.” I happily accept both of those compliments, but many photographers view such modifications as not being “true” photography. I beg to differ.

I aspire to produce fine art photography, which differs from photojournalism which requires events to be recorded unerringly and without manipulation so facts may be better understood. In fine art photography the goal (according to me) is not to make images that can be mistaken for actual reality but to foster a deeper appreciation of that reality, as well as to provoke an emotional response that helps us transcend the many issues of concern we face to today. Replacing a sky or adding a moon or removing errant tree branches or pieces or litter or other distractions in order to accomplish this helps the viewer focus on the subject and the photographer to communicate that which was intended. No one eschews a painter for adding or excluding anything that is or is not native to a given scene.

Truth be known, all photographs are something other than “reality” in the first place. The only lens that “sees” the way we do is arguably the 50mm fixed lens. Telephoto lenses make distant objects larger and wide angle lenses extend our natural vision well beyond normal and in many cases considerably distort perspective. Our eyes cannot freeze time in thousandths of a second nor can we turn a waterfall into a dreamy silken strand. Using an aperture to throw a background in or out of focus could also be considered an artificial technique, as could shooting macro photographs that magnify things well beyond our natural ability. Shooting from anything other than eye level (sitting or standing) pushes the boundaries of how we typically view the world, and once we tamper with the direction and intensity of light we are again changing “nature” to some degree.

So, instead of considering editing an act of photographic adultery, I would consider it an artistic responsibility. In my eyes, managing the image in order to produce a specific impact on viewers is my goal. I do not use extreme and artificial techniques to disguise poor workmanship or betray nature, but I believe it’s entirely appropriate to judiciously use the wonderful tools we have at our disposal to invoke the same emotions in my viewers as I did when beholding the subjects themselves.

What do you think?

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