Digital art and photography

This article has grown out of a discussion on the Nikonians Forum about whether, and to what extent, digital art qualifies as photography. There is, of course, an irony here, in that in the early days of photography the discussion raged about whether photography could qualify as art. The issue at hand is, given that almost every serious photographer who shoots digital will engage in some kind of developing or retouching in Photoshop or one of its competitors, is the retouched image still a ‘photograph’? Of course, photographic artists and commercial photographers have been working in wet darkrooms for decades to refine the perfect print, and to remove blemishes from the image. Since Man Ray began using the airbrush with photography in 1917, photographers have been editing photographs, either for artistic purposes, or for restoration, or, most famously in the Soviet Union, for changing the content and meaning of images, including deleting non-persons from historic pictures. —
It seems to me that to claim that only a certain degree of ‘development’ is acceptable is to place the photographer in a false artistic position. I have never entered a photography competition, and never intend to. However, I do know that most competitions would be as quick to reject a ‘snapshot’ – an image taken in haste, developed and printed and presented with no more thought or concern – as they would be to reject a picture which was clearly a purely digital creation with no involvement from a camera at all. If competitions can set their own rules, photographers should also set theirs. A photographer who aspires to a certain kind of credibility should not only set their own rules, but also declare them. Photojournalists, for example, follow a strict no-retouching and no-scene-creation ethic.  –For the original discussion, I identified seven degrees of artistic involvement with picture creation, which I list here: 

  1. Purist — images shot using available light with no post-processing beyond that which takes place in camera
  2. Photojournalistic — images shot ‘al fresco’ without post-processing beyond that which _could_ have happened in camera (ie, you can redevelop in Raw), but with the possibility of the use of single or multiple flash.
  3. Documentary — images shot to exactly represent a scene or situation as it actually is, with whatever lighting and selective exposure necessary to present this as accurately as possible.
  4. Studio — images which have been created from start to finish, including choice of scene, selection of models (or objects), clothing, makeup, lighting, facial expression, and going on through post-processing, for example removing stray hairs, smoothing, sharpening, and selective recolouring.
  5. Composite — an image created from more than one image, for example by the imposition of a background behind a model, or the stitching together of a panorama.
  6. Photographic illustration — an image which has been created from one or more images, but where additional meaning has been put into the image by morphing, distortion, addition of lines or areas, textures, graphics or special effects, but which remains in the digital (or dark-room) realm.
  7. Mixed media — a photographic illustration where a degree of the combination of elements has taken place once the image has left the digital (or dark-room) realm.

Naturally, not one of these levels or degrees makes a photograph into ‘art’. A snapshot at the beach would come into the ‘purist’ category, but very few snapshots could be considered – except in the trivial meaning of the word – to be ‘art’. 

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