Photography as an Illusion

Photo manipulation has been a hot-button issue for a considerable amount of time. Ever since the public woke up to the fact that models had features that were not quite natural, there has been an outrage towards the practices of photo manipulators. The area of photojournalism has not been spared from manipulated photos either. Photoshopping has received a bad wrap in advertising and photojournalism because the photos seem to lie. I would propose that in the case of photojournalism, where the journalists are using a photo to display an event, it is absolutely wrong to use a manipulated photo. In the case of advertising, the situation becomes a little harder to navigate. As for lying, photos have always done that.

The Painter’s Studio by Gustave Courbet

The historical context of photography is an interesting one. Before the invention of the camera, representational art was the closest one came to a two dimensional window into reality. Instead of family pictures, you would have family portraits either drawn or painted. Many times these paintings and drawings would be an ideal representation of the subjects. The artist B. J. Parker said something to this effect, “because people are paying the portrait maker to draw their family members, the patrons want their family members to look as beautiful as possible.” Paintings and drawings from real life are illusions of reality, not only because they often do not portray the ugly truth, but also because they are two dimensional representations of three dimensional reality.


the infamous photos by Alexander Gardner

With the advent of the camera, representational art all but died. There was no longer any need to paint a family as realistically as possible if a camera could capture them with light. Thus, photography replaced representational art. I believe Jacob Amundson taught me the idea that photography in many ways maintains the same illusions found in realistic painting and drawing. The camera still displays a three dimensional reality on a two dimensional surface. The illusion is inherent. Photographers were creating illusions even as far back as the Civil War. Alexander Gardner photographed the same dead soldier in two different locations, trying to pass the body off as two different snipers.

Many times, the photographer thinks along the lines of Professor Parker’s statement, showing a subject to be as beautiful as possible, which is admirable. Photoshop merely brings us back to practice of the masters, who many times, in order to please their patrons, improved upon some of the details. When it comes to the manipulation of photos used for advertising, it becomes more complicated than the theory would make it seem. The reactions people have to these photographs are very important. If the manipulated photos of models cause eating disorders then it is important to cease manipulating those photos. However, it seems life is far too complicated to say that the only direct cause of eating disorders is photoshopped models. The desire to make money is also at play here. The companies want models to have the most culturally desirable, physical traits in order to make sales.

The truth of the matter is that photographs are just as much of an illusion as realistic paintings and drawings. Both photography and representational art create an illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface. Whether through something as simple as lighting or photoshop, photographers alter reality just as much as the portrait masters did. Thus, we should know what we are seeing. Photographs were never true windows into reality. We have allowed photos to instill in us unrealistic body images, so it would be just to undo this by displaying models who have not been trimmed down in photoshop. In the end, however, photography will always be just an illusion.