What is a Photo?

22 Oct

I am a Photoshop nerd. I’m not quite sure how it happened but whatever I’m here now. Currently I work for a wedding photography studio as a retoucher, graphic designer, photographer, and jack-of-all-trades studio assistant. As of lately I’ve been reflecting on the state of the photograph as it is in today’s world. When I started toying with photography in my teens, digital was relatively new but for the most part unreliable and low in quality. My first camera belonged to my grandfather who was a photo-enthusiast/amateur, I started using his fully manual 35mm Nikon Nikkormat SLR camera (circa 1970s) in which I had to learn and understand how to properly expose a photograph on film. I didn’t develop my film or print my own prints in a darkroom until college; but still, when my friends had bulky digital cameras producing sloppy digital jpegs, I was going to the one hour lab and holding in my hands true photographs, photographs I could hold, bend, hand out, tape up, frame, behold.

Today I’m on the other end of the spectrum, sitting at a desk for hours clicking buttons, writing actions, formatting and reformatting, and retouching, cloning, healing, photoshopping.. etc. Don’t get me wrong, I love retouching and I love photoshop. I love learning everything I can and most of all I love taking a photograph and turning it into something entirely different. However, it’s increasingly apparent that digital photography is completely changing how everyone sees photographs. They expect surreal perfection now. It’s not uncommon for me at work to have a bride come in and sit for an hour or more going through all of the retouching she wants done for her wedding album.. I get requests like “My arm looks so fat in these, can you make them skinnier in ..like all of them! Oh, and can you make me tanner in these shots, I worked soooo hard to get tan for my wedding and it sooo doesn’t look like I’m tan!”  It’s the photographer’s fault! “Also, my husband’s bald spot, could you like.. hide that somehow? He looks old with it showing..and can you whiten my teeth in this portrait, they look gross” etc etc. Really nothing surprises me anymore. The thing about it is that in twenty years, this bride will open her wedding album to show her children and she’ll say “this was me when I got married, this was me skinny and tan and without flaws…” and in a sense.. what she has in her hands is a fraudulent document. You weren’t that skinny, you did have a pimple, and I’m sorry, but your husband did start balding early on. It’s life. These things make up who you are.

Photography as a medium is both dying and blossoming simultaneously. Our world is changing, media is changing, and we as people are changing. Photography is now more accessible than ever before. We have cameras in our phones, in our computers, in our pockets, and wherever else you might want one. We have apps to add “artsy” effects, we have photo-editing software come standard on any new computer we buy, and we have the internet which is overly saturated with a plethora of tutorials and free training all for some ad space profits on YouTube.

We as people view photographs differently. We know you photoshopped your head onto Arnold’s body back from when he was in his prime. We know President Bush was not humping that bear. We know Lady Gaga is unattractive. The photograph used to be a true to life (for the most part) document of reality, and now what is it? A photo can take on the life of a virus, stolen off a celebrity’s facebook page, manipulated by some 4chan punk, passed down, copied, recopied, re-edited, manipulated, reposted on the web, always changing and spawning into entirely new imagery. What is a photo? When entire global advertising campaigns for major brands have photographs which never get printed, can you still call them “photographs?”. The photo went from digital sensor, to computer, to design, to layout, to web/tv/email advertising, but was never made into a photograph, a print. What is a photo? When you can take an image on your phone, edit it on your computer, upload it to the web, and can share it with a massive audience all without ever understanding a thing about the medium.

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