A quest for the ultimate, beautiful, meaningful picture

Truth and Beauty

Should I have photoshopped the spiral stairway picture to get rid of the reflections in the glass? How much ‘correction’ is allowed in pictures? What is the balance between truth and beauty? Of course, this has been a discussion almost since the beginning of photography in the mid-19th century. But it has not been finally solved and the possibilities to manipulate pictures have become larger, more sophisticated and available to almost anyone with Photoshop, The Gimp and all the other software packages. It is another subject that will return in this blog every now and again, for I keep struggling with it.

The idea ‘photo = truth’ has been naive from the very outset. At best, a picture gives a little part of the truth: that which can be seen in a certain light, at a certain location in place and time and in a certain frame. It never is ‘the whole truth’: there is so much else that was not photographed at the same moment! Photo journalism and documentary photography rely on their telling bits of truth: JFK shot, the misery of the homeless, etc. But was Robert Capa’s dying soldier in the Spanish Civil War real or was it a staged picture? Does it make a difference for the message Capa was trying to give? The picture functioned as if it were real and maybe that is enough. Yet it undermines the trust in pictures telling the truth if it were a staged picture; it would detract from the effectiveness of messages of photographs in the long run. So let us hope that evidence will be found that it was real in the famous briefcase full of Capa’s negatives that was recently found.

But my pictures are not documentary, they are more about beauty than about truth. Still, to me photography has to do with ‘reality out there’. Shaping ‘alternate realities’ on the computer screen with the aid of photographic images is not my thing. But a little embellishment is not a problem to me. At first I thought that I would draw the line at the tricks that I could do in the chemical dark room: leaving out the unnecessary foreground by enlarging just part of the picture, a little dodging and burning, or correcting the perspective. But the temptation of further corrections is so large: removing red eyes in flash pictures, retouching a few blemishes on the skin (makes the portrayed person much happier), and … and there you go. Where is the end? Is it a matter of ethics, of communicative effectiveness, of phantasy?

Anyhow, in this picture–another one of the street snapshots from the Queen’s Birthday–I did do some retouching, just to reduce a little bit the white glare of the sun on the woman’s forehead. Now that is not too much beauty for truth, is it?


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