the photo i meant to take

Posted by on November 27, 2007

I never edit my digital photos anymore. This isn’t because of any internal artistic principle. I’m not sure I have any of those. Even though I value artlessness and authenticity, and that would make me tend toward not embellishing photos–particularly to the point that they look fake–I still cannot find any argument against photo editing. As soon as anyone takes a photo, it’s already an interpretation of reality, not the reality itself. It is a selection of the world, with some parts included and others clipped out. So there can be no argument for not carrying this interpretation further and further, as far as you want, according to an artistic vision.

I’ve only read one slim book of essays on photographic theory, by Susan Sontag, and although it was this book that made me think about these ideas for the first time in wonder, it also served to complicate and twist what had previously been a straightforward hobby for me. I realized after reading her essays that I could not untangle the moral or ethical ends of photography. I don’t know how to place either a positive or negative value on this phenomena brought about by the camera and redoubled by the internet: the proliferation of images in the world. I don’t know what a pure artistic image is, or if an image, in itself, has any moral content whatsoever. I know that some photos seem immoral to me, of course, because of their content. But are other photos moral– do they have a positive value in themselves? I’m not sure. Are they immoral for even existing? Are they a form of aggression, a consumption or appropriation of the visual world? These are some of the disturbing ideas that Sontag explores, so you can see why, in the end, I decided to put her book away and not let it paralyze me into shelving my camera.

Still, I am haunted by moral questions, and her ideas linger in my mind among the many things that would prevent me and have prevented me, all of my life, from giving myself to art. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this.

In any case, the reason I don’t digitally alter my photos anymore is more boring. It’s because photo editing software causes my “power”book to become irritable. Large files, mulitple software programs running simultaneously, and an impatient user (me) issuing a glut of commands– all of this causes my little old laptop a great deal of anxiety. So, as an act of mercy, I never use iPhoto or Photoshop and upload my photos directly from my camera to the internet, in their original untouched state, where they find safe harbor on flickr, and leave my poor laptop unharrassed.

The problem with this is that my photos are imperfect, and I wish I had a way to transform them by subtle methods into the picture I had intended to take– the one I could envision in my head when I made a decision to capture a chink of the visual world.

But not being able to make edits hasn’t been all bad. The foreknowledge that I won’t be able to make any changes to my photos disciplines me, makes me more careful, particularly in the way I frame a shot. But still, sometimes a photo isn’t quite as straight as I would like, or the colors are a little washed out, among other imperfections. It’s not as if I want to use Photoshop to create otherworldly fake-ola nature scenes. I just want to use it to properly obsess over small details that no one else notices– no airbrushed people or ultraviolet sunsets.

A few times recently, after putting Esme to bed, I’ve left her with Jeff and spent an evening at the Notre Dame computer lab where there is Photoshop. I took a group of my photos that I knew had potential and helped them out a bit. The above photo was one of them, and I love this edited version. It is the photo I wanted to take, but couldn’t manage in the moment, for whatever reason– probably my inexperience and ignorance of camera settings. Fortunately, there are tools and technology to use at leisure. Leisure is the one factor that you don’t often have when you are actually weilding a camera. The lighting or the scene is going to change, and a truely good photographer would know how to adjust accordingly to capture it well in the moment. I am not really that photographer. I have a good idea about what would make a good photo, I just don’t know how to get to it using only one piece of equipment– the camera. I need the camera, plus the computer.

I call the photo above “Heart with Black Appendages.” I like the way the colors in the photo are balanced– red heart with red building– and the way the composition is divided into thirds vertically and horizontally. I like that the eye is drawn mainly to the vibrant red heart. The heart has a circular core inside of it, which seems right to me–an inner heart embedded within the heart. The black wings and tails represent the perversion of the heart. But the dark, inhuman appendages do not eradicate the heart or stamp out its humanness altogether. It remains an intact heart, and the core especially.

The larger context, the fact that it is graffiti on a forlorn, concrete wall, makes it seem a very visceral and anonymous expression, which to me makes it more poignant. I also like the way the fringe of grass softens the hardness of the wall and rocky ground.

That’s my explanation for why I like this photo, and all of this comes across much better in the edited version. Obviously, for me, this photo does have positive moral content, but only as expressed in my particular words, my particular explanation. Another viewer may not extract the same meaning, or any meaning at all. But this is too much for me to think about right now. For now, I am morally in favor of both cameras and computers with Photoshop.

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  1. Alishia
    November 29, 2007

    I have not read Sontag’s book. But I remember a friend of mine in college studying photojournalism. He told me that posing pictures was manipulative of the audience. Obviously this is more true for newsworthy subjects. But I find myself asking the same question when I am photographing my children, my house, myself, my life. Am I staging things? Does editing detract from my once strict usage of aperture and shutter speed (yes, I think)? Anyway, these are good questions. And, yes, don’t let them paralyze you and your art/hobby. Reminds me of a book I heard of recently and have yet to read: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
    For giggles: online free and subscription service photo editing

  2. Manuela
    November 29, 2007

    Dear Julia,

    I have not seen the photo before it was edited but I really like whatever you did with it. The way you interpret the picture, that is how I want to look at picture/art in general (I think this is how I actually do look at pictures etc., at least mostly). I was actually thinking about that while we were at the museum today. Especially when the guy was talking about the two portraits, I had so many questions and thoughts that I would have loved to express regarding interpretation. But it really was not the right setting (you what I mean).
    I want to talk to you more about it soon and about the book, too.

  3. Julia
    November 29, 2007

    Manuela– This was one of the photos I took in Colorado this past summer that got washed out among all the others which no one looked at because they really did need editing, but I couldn’t edit them. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to go into more depth at the museum as well. Maybe we should just start doing this sort of thing on our own together.

    Alishia- I’ve actually read that book by Steven Pressfield. It’s pretty motivating and definitely worth the read.

  4. Jenny
    November 30, 2007


    I LOVE the photo, for exactly the same reasons you list.

    Beautiful, just beautiful.

  5. anna j
    December 2, 2007