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Author Topic: What is a photograph?  (Read 6892 times)
John Clifford
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« on: January 02, 2009, 09:39:44 PM »
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When does a photograph cease to be a photograph due to post-creation alteration? What is a photograph, and what isn't?

Here's my take: if one alters a scene physically and then takes a photograph, that is photography. If one takes a photograph and then alters the image (via razor blade, editor, etc.) so that substantive elements in the original image are no longer there (or new elements are added), then that is photo illustration. My test (comparing the raw image/negative/slide to the final image, looking for added or removed elements, i.e., bushes, tree limbs, etc.) is pretty simple and easily verifiable, and so the point where post-processing moves into photo illustration is easy to determine. For example, if the photographer moves a bush before firing the shutter, the resultant image would be a PHOTOGRAPH rather than a PHOTO ILLUSTRATION (if the photographer copied in a bush from another image while post-processing, that would be photo illustration).

One of the assumptions that most people make when viewing a photograph is that everything they see was there when the shutter was tripped... that is a given with photography. I also think this is why many people feel somehow deceived when photo illustration is passed off as photography. I, for one, find it disquieting when I view an image that is represented as a photograph only to discover it is a photo illustration, because I feel deceived. This is similar to how I'd feel if I was looking at a purported exhibit of marble sculpture but discovered that the figures were instead cast from molds and then painted to look like stone... or a gallery of impressionist watercolors that were actually heavily-altered giclee-printed photographs. Why? In either case the artist is fraudulently misrepresenting his efforts. (This is also why I'm not a fan of the pseudo-oil painted portraits complete with brush strokes that are actually photographs printed on canvas, although some are quite striking, because they seem pretentious in that the owner believes that somehow faking a painting adds more value to the image.) If, however, I know going in how the artist has produced his art because he has been honest about it, then I can judge the work on its merits.

My distinction is that when an image is modified to either add or remove substantive elements it is no longer a photograph but is transformed into a photo illustration. This is a clear differentiation... or if it's not then where do you draw the line? At what point is a photograph so altered that it no longer should be called a photograph?

The only thing 'wrong' with a photo illustration, IMO, is trying to pass it off as a photograph. I've come to this opinion after consideration, and I've also come to discover that this opinion seems to be the concensus among the photographic community. For instance, National Geographic will not accept images that have substantive modifications, nor will most other photography-centric magazines (although many magazines seek and will gladly accept photo illustrations identified as such).

Comments?
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Peter McLennan
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« Reply #1 on: January 02, 2009, 10:40:02 PM »
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Quote from: John Clifford
When does a photograph cease to be a photograph due to post-creation alteration? What is a photograph, and what isn't?

Interesting questions, yet I keep wondering:  "Why should one care?"  

We can assume that all photographs are manipulated, even those made for forensic purposes.  The photographer's choices made before exposure are but the beginning of the continuous chain of manipulations that end with the presentation of the image to the viewer.

Disliking images that cross boundaries between photograph and painting seems arbitrary to me; much like a blanket dislike of "digital" images made way back when film was king.  What counts for me is the final image and its impact.  Absent the court of law application, where the image purports to represent truth, I prefer to take an image at face value and not let its post production techniques affect my appreciation for it.

This image, for example, began life as a lackluster NEF but has obviously experienced considerable manipulation since exposure.  In its new form I quite like it.



That National Geographic refuses "doctored" images seems particularly hypocritical, since they were among the very first to use these techniques on a cover of their magazine, having digitally moved one of the Great Pyramids.
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mahleu
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« Reply #2 on: January 03, 2009, 02:13:28 AM »
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What exactly constitutes manipulation?

Taking a photograph involves so many choices about what to include, exclude, angles of view, desired effect etc.
Even a photograph meant to be a straight forward representation is excluding everything behind the camera.
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John Clifford
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« Reply #3 on: January 03, 2009, 01:43:45 PM »
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There's no doubt that a camera captures, at best, a subset of what an observer sees... with the advantage of freezing the moment so that observers of that image can go back over it repeatedly to notice things that weren't obvious at first glance.

But the discussion of what is a photograph, and what isn't, doesn't depend on whether a camera captures reality. For the sake of argument, assume it doesn't; it captures at best a space-time slice of reality. The result of that capture is, everyone would agree, a photograph. The question is, when does this photograph that IS captured by a camera cease to be a photograph due to post-capture alteration? At what point does alteration accumulate so that a fundamental change to the image occurs, where photograph morphs to illustration?

I submit that changing colors or contrasts, up to a point, doesn't trigger this. As long the original unaltered image can be compared to the altered image and there are no substantive edits (additions or deletions of elements), then the photograph remains a photograph. What might be a substantive edit? How about copying in a full moon where there was no full moon in the original captured image? Or, replacing a bland blue sky with a colorful mottled sky? Or, erasing a tree limb that intrudes into a scenic? IMO all of these are substantive edits. Once such an alteration is done, however, the photograph now becomes a photo illustration.

Maybe another question should be, is there something holy about substantive edits or the lack thereof? Is a photograph somehow better than a photo illustration, or just different? I admit that I am uncomfortable with passing off a photo illustration as a photograph. It just seems like cheating to me. Would Ansel Adams have moved the moon in 'Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico'? Or would he have considered this cheating, too? My personal philosophy is that part of the value of a photograph, to me anyway, is that I don't cheat. I believe this makes me a better photographer, and I also believe that nothing worthwhile is easy.

I have no doubt that in the near future we'll be able to create any sort of image we want, and such images will be as realistic as photographs. I offer up 'Forest Gump' with its scenes of the title character meeting Kennedy and Nixon in the White House; we know these are not real, yet if they had been shown as real during the respective presidents' terms they would have been accepted as real. There is obviously an ethical issue with presenting faked imagery as real; is there one with presenting photo illustration as photography?




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« Reply #4 on: January 03, 2009, 02:21:27 PM »
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Quote from: Peter McLennan
Disliking images that cross boundaries between photograph and painting seems arbitrary to me; much like a blanket dislike of "digital" images made way back when film was king.  What counts for me is the final image and its impact.
My view too. Some people complain about photographers who spend time in PS improving an image as not real photography, yet they may spend even longer lighting a setup, yet somehow an artificially lit image is more real!? No-one claimed such daft things about those who spent ages in a darkroom, as they didn't do real photography, usually the opposite. PS is now my darkroom and smells a lot nicer.

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This image, for example, began life as a lackluster NEF but has obviously experienced considerable manipulation since exposure.  In its new form I quite like it.
Very nice image.


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That National Geographic refuses "doctored" images seems particularly hypocritical, since they were among the very first to use these techniques on a cover of their magazine, having digitally moved one of the Great Pyramids.
Not hypocritical, as they admit the pyramid fiasco was a big mistake and that the sort of photography they portray is diminished by rejigging of image elements, by cloning or similar.



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jjj
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« Reply #5 on: January 03, 2009, 02:38:54 PM »
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Quote from: John Clifford
What might be a substantive edit? How about copying in a full moon where there was no full moon in the original captured image? Or, replacing a bland blue sky with a colorful mottled sky? Or, erasing a tree limb that intrudes into a scenic? IMO all of these are substantive edits. Once such an alteration is done, however, the photograph now becomes a photo illustration.
What if I get someone to hold the tree branch out of way whilst I take shot, is that any different from if I remove it in post? What if I remove litter from floor in person or in post? The end image is the same?

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Maybe another question should be, is there something holy about substantive edits or the lack thereof? Is a photograph somehow better than a photo illustration, or just different?
Just different.

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I admit that I am uncomfortable with passing off a photo illustration as a photograph. It just seems like cheating to me.
Depends on the context. And you do not need PS to manipulate reality. The famous Kiss at Hotel de Ville photo by Doisneau was passed off as reportage, when later he was sued by someone claiming to be the subject,  he admitted to using models and her is the subject  with her original copy


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Would Ansel Adams have moved the moon in 'Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico'? Or would he have considered this cheating, too? My personal philosophy is that part of the value of a photograph, to me anyway, is that I don't cheat. I believe this makes me a better photographer, and I also believe that nothing worthwhile is easy.
No one cares how difficult a picture was to take at end of day. It's either good or it isn't. It may be impressive if it was absurdly difficult to capture [and is a good photo], but great shots can be done easily by skilled people and others may struggle to get a mediocre shot in same situation. Some people find creating easy, whilst others struggle to produce something - but it makes no difference to how you should perceive end product.


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I have no doubt that in the near future we'll be able to create any sort of image we want, and such images will be as realistic as photographs. I offer up 'Forest Gump' with its scenes of the title character meeting Kennedy and Nixon in the White House; we know these are not real, yet if they had been shown as real during the respective presidents' terms they would have been accepted as real. There is obviously an ethical issue with presenting faked imagery as real; is there one with presenting photo illustration as photography?
Only if doing so to mislead, but you can mislead simply by how you frame an image. There was a great advert for the Guardian newspaper many years ago showing the same scene shot with 3 different camera angles and different lengths of footage, they all told a different story.
And thanks to the wonder of YouTube here it is
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3h-T3KQNxU
« Last Edit: January 03, 2009, 02:39:37 PM by jjj » Logged

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« Reply #6 on: January 03, 2009, 03:01:24 PM »
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This has become a tired question.  Each one of us can decide for ourselves which photographs we want to include in our mental museum.  Over time we will probably alter our criteria, to include additional works and perhaps divest others.  I recommend we all just do it and spare others our reasoning, since none of our criteria, in spite of our ego investment, will be universal.  For some heavy, but entertaining, reading on this topic, I recommend Thierry de Duve's Kant After Duchamp.
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walter.sk
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« Reply #7 on: January 03, 2009, 03:49:57 PM »
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What seems to be missing thus far in the thread is the relation between the purpose of the photograph  (or the purpose of its use or publication) and the techniques of alteration "allowed" or prohibited.  If National Geographic is implying that what is seen in their pages is what people would see were they to go to those places, then they build credibility by guidelines of what is acceptable manipulation, either before or after pressing the shutter button.

Clearly, photographs used for evidence in the legal professions, or for documentation in photo journalism, have very little leeway for alteration of the scene or object, either before or after the shutter fires.  But a wedding photographer has no problem in removing zits and wrinkles from the bride, and that is not considered "deceptive," or dishonest.  

One of the questions that draws long and vehement responses has to do with "when is a photograph art."  I maintain that if one approaches photography as a tool in producing art, the clone tool does what the painter does with the scene before him, and that is to remove from consideration aspects of what is there for the purpose of simplifying in order to focus the viewer on what is important to the painter, or photographer.

I am also sure that before photography existed, and a main function of painting was to record (and interpret) a scene, there was much more of a tie between what was in the scene and what was actually painted.  As photography entered the scene it left painters freer to interpret what they saw in more personal ways, and eventually leading to impressionism, abstract expressionism,, op art, etc.  And at each step along the way were the traditionalists arguing that that may be done with paint, but it is not painting, or even art.  

Certainly photography has been through many styles, from the pictorialists to the "everything in sharp focus" period, to the abstract, etc.  There was even a rebellion against the salon style of photography as artifice, leading to valuing the snapshot look over the superconcern with formalism, where every image had one point of interest, oddly enough at the same intersection of thirds, etc.

As somebody who has used film and the darkroom since my first Leica iif 50 years ago, and who now embraces the freedom and new technology to create from an image of a scene what it is I saw in my imagination when I looked at the scene, I don't distinguish between photo-illustration and photography.  I simply see the camera as a tool for generating the material I further interpret.

 Mozart was accused of setting out to destroy symphonic music when he first included the clarinet in his orchestra.  The 12-tone composers were accused of destroying the entire heritage of western music, and Mondrian's geometric paintings were seen as anti-art, where as Joan Miro actually claimed to be doing "anti-painting."

At every step of the development of our arts, there were people who argued with logic or not about the validity of what was being done and whether it was "true" to the medium in which it was done.  At the same time, there were and always will be, thankfully, those who don't see a contradiction, and don't see a need to make fine distinctions in the definitions of their methods or materials.

I don't know just what got into me right now, but I feel very strongly that if you capture something with a camera, it is a photograph.  Is using the warp tool in Photoshop any different from wrapping a mylar tube around the lens?
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dalethorn
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« Reply #8 on: January 03, 2009, 08:18:40 PM »
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Addressing your question in an indirect way - I once asked a number of people whether, if they were on a criminal jury and were presented with evidence, some of which was tainted or very suspect in its handling or processing, they could go ahead and render a guilty judgement in that case.  It wasn't as simple a question as I've stated here - I wanted to know whether they would allow a certain percentage of tainted (or possibly planted) evidence along with the good evidence, without throwing the case out or hanging the jury.  Apparently most people would allow the bad evidence as long as there were some good evidence they could form a conclusion on.  Jerry Spence once stated in a television interview that he had been in 4,000-plus criminal trials, and he felt certain that the authorities had fabricated evidence in virtually every case.

Addressing another part of the question more directly, Life magazine and others ran the backyard photos of L.H. Oswald in 1964, with many differences between the published versions, and few complaints from what I heard.  People also didn't question the more obvious problems such as the person in the photo waving two newspapers that were bitterly opposed to each other in philosophy.  There were far more objections to the "dark" Simpson photos in the 1990's, but ironically, there was no substitution or fakery of the picture data, just a darkening that some media objected to as making the person more "menacing" in appearance.

If I were to look at a photo that I thought might include fakery, I might wonder if the intent was to simply make it look better, to make it look very different or abstract, or (sigh) to deceive the viewer somehow.

My question here, to play the paranoia card, is would you automatically suspect any photo that might be controversial (political theme, contest with $$$ and/or reputation-capital award, you name it) of fakery that you can't detect with reasonable effort, or would you say to yourself "innocent until proven guilty"?  My personal view is that "innocent until proven guilty" applies to someone accused of something bad, as a right of defense, but does not apply automatically to other things.  Not that I say "guilty until proven innocent" in other cases, just that I retain the right of suspicion when a motive to deceive is a reasonable possibility.
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bill t.
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« Reply #9 on: January 04, 2009, 02:18:20 AM »
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I can't tell you what a photograph is, but I know one when I see one.

BTW, that's a very nice Van Gogh!  Of course it's a picture, not a photograph.  Wish I knew how to do that.
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« Reply #10 on: January 04, 2009, 11:52:43 AM »
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Quote from: John Clifford
When does a photograph cease to be a photograph due to post-creation alteration? What is a photograph, and what isn't?

I don't think heavy post-processing automatically moves an image from photography over into the computer graphics camp.  The unmanipulated and the manipulated image are both photographs.  It's just that they are distinctly different types of photographs.  I really don't see why folks get worked up over this because I think we deal with something very similar in music and never give it a second thought.  When we listen to a recording, do we really care if there's an actual string section backing up the singer at the time the recording was made, as opposed to that same effect being created by a synthesizer and added after the fact?  99%  of the time, we concentrate on the finished song and don't concern ourselves with how the artist got there.  The only problem comes when there is an attempt to deceive, as others have pointed out.  Then, we DO care whether what we're hearing is a live performance or if it's lip-synched, just as we care whether the pictures we see in our newspapers are accurate or if they've had significant elements added or removed.
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dalethorn
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« Reply #11 on: January 04, 2009, 05:09:51 PM »
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A photograph is a capture, and post processing is a manipulation.  Those are pretty distinct in their differences.
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LoisWakeman
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« Reply #12 on: January 06, 2009, 04:27:13 AM »
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Michael considered this a while ago in, amongst other essays, Lifting the Shroud.

My own view is it doesn't really matter as long as you don't lie about it or make false representations. For me, it is more of a personal achievement to be in the right place at the right time and get a good shot - but if time needs to be spent after the event to get a pleasing image, then so be it. Just a different route to a good result.
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« Reply #13 on: January 06, 2009, 08:27:13 AM »
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Quote from: walter.sk
Mozart was accused of setting out to destroy symphonic music when he first included the clarinet in his orchestra.  The 12-tone composers were accused of destroying the entire heritage of western music, and Mondrian's geometric paintings were seen as anti-art, where as Joan Miro actually claimed to be doing "anti-painting."

At every step of the development of our arts, there were people who argued with logic or not about the validity of what was being done and whether it was "true" to the medium in which it was done.  At the same time, there were and always will be, thankfully, those who don't see a contradiction, and don't see a need to make fine distinctions in the definitions of their methods or materials.
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
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« Reply #14 on: January 06, 2009, 08:31:40 AM »
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Quote from: dalethorn
A photograph is a capture, and post processing is a manipulation.  Those are pretty distinct in their differences.
In that case any film that has been developed is a manipulation, as it is post processed.
And any raw file rendered  to be visible is also a fake!
Best leave all images in the camera and then there's no problem.
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dalethorn
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« Reply #15 on: January 06, 2009, 10:44:14 AM »
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Quote from: jjj
In that case any film that has been developed is a manipulation, as it is post processed.
And any raw file rendered  to be visible is also a fake!
Best leave all images in the camera and then there's no problem.
I am amazed at the LL forum of late - not only allowing vicious personal attacks from this sicko, but cyber stalking as well. Perhaps there is no more moderation?
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jjj
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« Reply #16 on: January 06, 2009, 11:12:47 AM »
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Quote from: dalethorn
I am amazed at the LL forum of late - not only allowing vicious personal attacks from this sicko, but cyber stalking as well. Perhaps there is no more moderation?
You do make me laugh.  
Can't post anymore, need to sharpen some knives to skin some kittens for tea.
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dalethorn
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« Reply #17 on: January 06, 2009, 12:14:34 PM »
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An undeveloped image on film is a latent image, and I suppose a RAW file from a camera is also a latent image. So the question is, is there a "purely photographic" way to get from the latent image to a viewable image without manipulation?

Henry Kloss of Advent used to say "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, or the line that's straightest under the circumstances."

I can think of three scenarios: One, where there is clear manipulation and intent to do so. Two, using a zone system in black and white, or having a custom setting for developing RAW images that achieves clearly different results than the software mfr's default settings, or some other setting that's a "standard" default. Three, standard development practices for film specified in the mfr's photo development kits, and for RAW's, default settings according to the software and/or camera makers' specs.

Since scenario three occurs using widely-practiced defaults that develop the image automatically without user intervention, I think that would qualify as non-manipulation of photographs, since I precluded intent to manipulate as part of the process. People can argue that there are no standard defaults, but that's a specious argument.

It's scenario two where most photo experts do their magic, so maybe focusing on that would help narrow the question down.
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dalethorn
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« Reply #18 on: January 06, 2009, 12:18:51 PM »
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Quote from: jjj
You do make me laugh.  
Can't post anymore, need to sharpen some knives to skin some kittens for tea.
As Spock would say, "fascinating."  Not as a good thing obviously, but that LL would continue to allow their forum to be held captive by the lunatic 'jjj'

We'd better add manic-depressive to'jjj's paranoid schizophrenia with delusions of grandeur. I hope he makes his appointment without running over anyone.
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« Reply #19 on: January 06, 2009, 02:02:19 PM »
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Maybe the question should be "What is a photographer".

There are countless points along the life of a photograph where "manipulations", either accidental or intentional, happen; a black and white photograph can be considered to be manipulated simply because it has no colour; it is not the 'absolute truth'.

I think of myself as an interpreter. My photographs are my interpretation of a scene and the manipulations are the manifestation of my photographic vocabulary; I'm telling a story my way - and whether its a truthful representation or not is up to the viewer to decide.
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