on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Morality and Realism in Photography

Realism in photography is the exception, not the norm. We should treat it as such

Guy Tal

Professional photographic artist, author and speaker working primarily in the Western US. Website Flickr



These may seem selfish considerations; but you can't, in sound morals, condemn a man for taking care of his own integrity. It is his clear duty. And least of all can you condemn an artist pursuing, however humbly and imperfectly, a creative aim. In that interior world where his thought and his emotions go seeking for the experience of imagined adventures, there are no policemen, no law, no pressure of circumstance or dread of opinion to keep him within bounds.” ~Bertrand Russell

The topic of morality as it pertains to photographic realism (or, as it is often characterised: the ethics of “manipulation”) came up in several discussions I participated in recently. My position is that, as photographers working at this time in history, we should educate our audiences to not consider photographs by default as realistic depictions, whether we happen to aim for such realism in our own work or not. 

Realism in photography should only be assumed in some contexts and when sufficient evidence for it is offered (if only a statement from the photographer to that effect).

Realism in photography should only be assumed in some contexts and when sufficient evidence for it is offered (if only a statement from the photographer to that effect). More important, I believe that we should help our audience understand that realism, as a criterion by which to evaluate photographs, is only relevant in those cases where a photograph is intended to serve an evidentiary purpose–a commemoration of the appearance of some object or scene at a point in time; and even in those cases, photographs should not be assumed by default to be truthful, even if ostensibly realistic.

There are many uses for photography in which realism is not only irrelevant but can be an unnecessary imposition and a barrier to greater appreciation of photographs as aesthetic experiences in their own right, rather than as visual records. Possessing such understanding, a knowledgeable viewer may find tremendous joy in non-representational photographs. Quoting Minor White, “The more knowledge (including technical, psychological, historical, and personal) that a viewer brings to a photograph, the richer will be his experience.”

Guy Tal landscape photographer

I acknowledge that those who hold the view that all photographs should be held to the strict ethics of photojournalism (in truth, just one of many uses for the photographic medium) may be staunch in their belief. If you are of this opinion, I ask that you please keep an open mind and find the courage to examine honestly whether it accords with the state of photography today.

I’d like to first dispense with the notion that a realistic photograph—one intended to maintain fidelity to the way a random person may have seen the things portrayed—is necessarily a truthful one.
As a disclaimer of sorts, I don’t consider myself, nor anyone else, to be in a position to decide what is or is not universally moral. Also, please keep in mind that there isn’t an entity empowered to declare for the rest of us what is universally “right” or “wrong” in photography, and certainly not in art. And it is my sincere hope that such an entity never comes into existence. In fact, I consider the position that all photographs must be realistic depictions (or anything else), even if well-intended, as a form of artistic fundamentalism. As Albert Camus proposed, “art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself and dies of all others.”

Realism vs. Truth

I’d like to first dispense with the notion that a realistic photograph—one intended to maintain fidelity to the way a random person may have seen the things portrayed—is necessarily a truthful one. This is an especially relevant distinction in landscape photography, where choice of composition and extreme perspectives often are employed to create a sense of wildness and drama in scenes that are, in fact, not wild nor as dramatic as one may be led to believe. Such photographs may be true (albeit perhaps optically distorted) representations of appearances, but false representations of experiences. A person who travels to these places hoping to experience them as remote and wild, or as exaggerated by optical distortion, and instead finds a crowded viewing area and/or photographers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, is likely to be disappointed.

Guy Tal ~ Winter Minuet

On the other hand, consider images deliberately processed and manipulated as to direct the viewer’s attention to, and to place emphasis on, aspects of a photographer’s experience in a truly wild setting, in actual solitude, in a remote and challenging landscape, that inspired a thought or a feeling the photographer chose to highlight, but that may otherwise not be as obvious if presented as-seen.

Which is the greater untruth?

Thoughts from The Masters

Photographer Sally Mann claimed that even photographs intended to be objective representations are in fact not so. She explained, “How can a sentient person of the modern age mistake photography for reality? All perception is selection, and all photographs—no matter how objectively journalistic the photographer's intent—exclude aspects of the moment's complexity. Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time's continuum.” It is this problem of the continuum: the flow of time, as well as the degree of “departure from reality”—a term used by Ansel Adams to describe his photographs—that makes setting strict categorical boundaries, moral or otherwise, inherently a matter of subjective judgment.

Even such highly regarded photojournalist as Ernst Haas admitted, “Disinterested in scientific objectivity, I want to transform reality with a poetic conception.” Haas also acknowledged that photographs may serve a variety of purposes, not all of which having to do with factual representation. He wrote, “To compete with the painter is not really our destiny; we are on the way to speaking our very own language. With it we will have to create our own literature. You will have to decide for yourself what kind of works you want to create. Reports of facts, essays, poems—do you want to speak or to sing?”

Edward Weston, one of the giants on whose shoulders we—landscape photographers—stand, asked, “Why limit yourself to what your eyes see when you have such an opportunity to extend your vision?” And Minor White, another such giant, claimed to not even care when looking at a photograph, whether it was realistic. White wrote, “I'm always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don't give a damn how it got made.”

Guy Tal - Morality and Realism in Photography Image 3

Edward Steichen, writing for the magazine Camera Work in 1903, stated, “In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability.”

Photographer and historian John Szarkowski summed the issue in perhaps the most direct manner I know. He wrote, “Because we see reality in different ways, we must understand that we are looking at different truths rather than the truth and that, therefore, all photographs lie in one way or another. Today's technological advances in digital manipulation of images that the public sees regularly in photographs and films now only makes it easier to understand what has always been true.”


We know for a fact that many (in my opinion, most, although I don’t have hard data to support it) photographs that a person may encounter these days—whether online, in print, in a commercial, etc.—are not a realistic depiction.
That photographs, by default, should not be considered as realistic depictions at this time can be argued using a thought experiment. Let’s say that your friend is about to purchase a used vehicle from a dealer. You know that your friend is averse to confrontation and is not likely to haggle over the price, but you also know that used vehicles on a dealer’s lot are often marked with prices exceeding their fair value and that used-car salesmen are reputed to take advantage of gullible customers. Will you advise your friend to assume that all dealers are ethical and that all marked prices are fair, despite knowing otherwise, or will you suggest to your friend to go to the effort of researching what a fair price should be before deciding that it is fair?

Likewise, we know for a fact that many (in my opinion, most, although I don’t have hard data to support it) photographs that a person may encounter these days—whether online, in print, in a commercial, etc.—are not a realistic depiction. How then can we suggest in good faith that people ignore this fact, and continue to insist that photographs should always be assumed by default as realistic? To do so is not only to be dishonest (in the sense of misrepresenting what we know to be true) but also to encourage gullibility and uncritical thinking.

On the other hand, if we advise people, in the absence of testimony to the contrary, to always assume that photographs are not realistic depictions, and that many photographs—for various reasons, most of which are neither nefarious nor immoral—are not intended as realistic depictions and that realism should always be contingent on context, we help them become more critical thinkers, less prone to deliberate deception, and better able to appreciate as art those photographs intended as aesthetic experiences and for which realism is entirely unnecessary. This seems to me both a better outcome and a more moral one.

Realism and Art

To a photographic artist, the insistence on dogmatic adherence to the tenets of photojournalism is especially confounding. There is no reason to judge a photograph not intended to serve an evidentiary purpose based on the very thing it is not meant to be. When those who insist that it should be so are asked to defend their position, their justification often is a presumed ignorance on the part of the public. (Really, is there anyone out there who does not know that some photographs are manipulated?). As members of the public who very likely do understand that not all photographs are realistic depictions, we should be offended by such attitudes, rather than promote them.

Guy Tal - Morality and Realism in Photography Image 4

Not only does such a dogmatic position prejudice potential audiences for creative photography, but it also promotes a pervasive ignorance about photography as a medium for art. Rather than invest attention in appreciating artistic photographs as they are intended, viewers are instead encouraged to assume an overly simple-minded approach in their judgment of photographs: are they “manipulated” or not?

To promote the perception among viewers that photographs not adhering to journalistic ethics are less valid or less moral than those that do, is not only to proliferate ignorance and prejudice but is especially damaging to anyone who wishes to use the photographic medium for the creation of art. Some of the greatest photographers in history worked tirelessly to defend photography as a worthy medium for the creation of art. How sad and embarrassing that their greatest foes today are other photographers.

When instructed to assume by default that photographs are realistic depictions, viewers are less likely to pay attention to such qualities as visual design, metaphorical or symbolic meanings, and the artist’s command of visual composition. Lacking appreciation for such things, viewers likely will not take the time to study photographs beyond the obvious, as they might a painting. When instructed to consider (the degree of) manipulation as a primary point of judgment for all photographs, viewers are unlikely to fully, or at all, appreciate photographs as art, and instead become prone to dismissing even works of creative genius as mere “manipulations” once recognised as unrealistic.

A medium only allowing for recording of reality, leaving little or no opportunity for introducing subjective aspects of the author’s own mind into the work is patently unsuitable for the creation of art. As expressed by photographer Henry Peach Robinson in 1892, “… they who, looking perhaps only at their own limited experiments, say photography cannot lie, take a very narrow view and greatly underrate the capabilities of the art. All arts have their limits, and I admit that the limits of photography are rather narrow, but in good hands, it can be made to lie like a Trojan. However much truth may be desirable in the abstract, to the artist there is no merit in a process that cannot be made to say the thing that is not.”

More pertinent, we all know that photographs, whether presented as “straight,” “manipulated,” or any other kind, can be made to portray things transcending reality. If that was not the case, there would be no reason for this article and numerous others debating the topic dating as far back as the 1800s. Denial, at times, dies hard. 

Moviegoers can easily tell the difference between a documentary film and a fictional one. There is no reason why these same people can’t be encouraged to make the same distinctions when studying photographs.

To preach that all photographs must be judged on their realism, even when such realism is entirely irrelevant, is to dumb down the audience for photography. It is my belief that, rather than push to maintain widespread ignorance of the many expressive purposes that photography may serve, we—photographers—will do our audiences a great service by educating them to the reality of photographs. Readers know to apply different modes of appreciation to works of journalism and to works of fiction. Moviegoers can easily tell the difference between a documentary film and a fictional one. There is no reason why these same people can’t be encouraged to make the same distinctions when studying photographs.

Moving the Goal Post

Sadakichi Hartmann—a photographer and art critic—penned an article for Camera Work magazine in 1904, in which he attempted to define “straight photography.” In his definition, Hartmann states, “I do not object to retouching, dodging, or accentuation, as long as they do not interfere with the natural qualities of photographic technique.” How is that for avoiding the issue? And what exactly are “natural qualities of photographic technique”?

I remember discussions dating back 15-20 years about whether using highly-saturated film or the effect of “fuzzy” water, were acceptable since the resulting images did not match what could be seen without a camera. I have not heard this argument raised in a long time. Today we have photographs depicting things that are, without a doubt, invisible to the human eye: the night sky, infrared or ultraviolet light, etc.

It is not rare that photographers attempting to defend realism as the default mode of photography still admit that “some” processing is acceptable to them—adjustments to contrast and colour within some subjectively defined range, etc., but are never able to offer universally defensible arguments for how much should be considered too much. Every few years, the goal post for what is acceptable is conveniently pushed further.

As technology improves, cameras can “see” more and more beyond what human vision is capable of, and certainly, processing tools offer considerably more opportunities to (in the words of Ansel Adams) depart from reality. Steichen was right: it remains entirely a matter of degree and ability.

Not Photography?

When presenting these opinions to photographers who disagree with them, the discussion sometimes escalates to whether an image that has been deliberately manipulated can still be considered as photography.

I believe that all products starting with a photographic capture qualify as photography, if only for the fact that any other definition is bound to be subjective.

Formal definitions of photography agree with this view. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines photography as, “the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface.” The Oxford Dictionary only mentions that “Modern photography is based on the property of silver compounds decomposing to metallic silver when exposed to light.” Neither dictionary qualifies the definition of photography by whatever may happen after an image is captured by a camera.

But I think that there is a greater issue to be considered before bickering about definitions, which is this: creative expression is known to be associated, or at the very least strongly correlated, with states of flow, joy, transcendence, and satisfaction—some of the most powerful feelings that a human may experience. Should we sacrifice such things for the sake of ambiguous semantics?



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