Are photographs real?

Pedestrian Bridge, San Diego. Safdie Rabines architects.

Pedestrian Bridge, Harbor Drive, San Diego CA

People still ask, though less frequently, if a photograph has been photoshopped. What they really want to know is are they looking at a "real" photograph or something fake. There's a story that Picasso was once taken to task by an acquaintance for painting portraits that didn't look real. Picasso is said to have asked the man if he had a picture of his wife. The man dutifully produced a small photo from his wallet. "Is that what she really looks like?" asked Picasso. "Yes, of course replied the man, feeling flattered." "I didn't know she was two inches tall" mused Picasso. True or not, the story points to the fact that photographs,  always presumed to be a factual and faithful reproduction of something real, are just representations. Even in the early days, the photographic image was manipulated in many ways to produce a desired result. Digital photography has not only facilitated this process by letting us change basic values like brightness, and color, we can now alter the actual content of an image. Blemishes can be removed, faces can be made thinner, clouds can be added to skies, faded foliage can be rendered in bright hues. Given a palette of choices with which to modify the world around us we have. Even in photojournalism where the imperative is to produce a factual representation our visual aesthetic offers wide latitude. If Sebastiao Salgado's amazing photographs were simple facsimilies of life they wouldn't be so unique. Edward Weston's classic nudes wouldn't be so iconic. Their vision, together with a mastery of black and white photography, and a unique style produced images that stand apart. Ansel Adams might have called it a "departure from reality."


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