What Makes a Photograph REAL?

What Makes a Photograph REAL?
In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.
— Alfred Steiglitz

This quote from Alfred Stieglitz captures perfectly the essential piece of the grand puzzle that is photography as not only a mode of recording information through time, but as a means of expressing ourselves and the human condition through art. 

Much like poetry, writing, theatre and film, photography reaches beyond a captured moment of reality and in to the world where time no longer exists, freezing an emotion, a feeling, a thought or an idea, void of time and fully expressive of who we are as a people. 

However, this moment of time still exists, and this will be my argument for the reality of any picture taken on a camera at a time an place. If you've been following along this week in my newsletter and on my blog, I’ve opened up a question to the community of photographers and artists that surrounds me: “What makes a photograph a REAL photograph?” That is, where do we draw a line between reality and surreality, and at wait point on the spectrum does a digital photograph forever relinquish it’s right to the original name?

Here’s the video that sparked the controversy:

Within hours of posting the video on my Facebook page, I had a variety of comments ranging the spectrum of color - from notes of praise and messages of astonishment, through the simple “wow’s” and “nice’s”, and on to the more asinine thoughts in the mixed bag of reactions to the video. My favorite derogatory was this one:

“Bad photographer but good editor.”

I’ve been seeing many, many posts lately about Steve McCurry’s images and the controversy surrounding them, but I’m not here to argue the ethical merit or morality of whether an image should be processed in photojournalism. I’m here to tell you this:


“No matter how deeply processed a photograph is, it is still a photograph if it was taken on a camera.”


But this isn’t the question, and some of you are surely up in arms. That’s okay, I understand your position because I held the same position for a very, very long time. For years, even, I didn’t consider my own work to be comparable to a “real” photograph. Clearly my position on the subject has changed. To gain more insight and hear what other photographers around the world thought, I reached out to the community and asked them to tell me what THEY think made a photograph a REAL photograph.


Here are some of the responses:


Photography is about knowing how images affect people based on subject matter of the photo and being able to manipulate that to your advantage doesn’t mean it’s not photography anymore; if anything it just means you care enough about your photos to make them as perfect as possible.
— Colin Black
A real photograph is a work of art that someone has put time and effort into creating. The effort may have been more behind the camera rather than within photoshop or vice versa, but either way it’s the creative image of what the artist had imagined in visual form. Sometimes photos require more editing in order to portray the image which the artist had in mind, but it is still a real photograph regardless.
— Trisha
The question is ‘what is a REAL photograph?’ I guess if it is made of light (photo = light, graph = to paint), it is a real photograph. After that we can discuss the kind of photograph it is. Is it a documentary? Guess it’s better not to manipulate these, or else we would end up with misinformation. Conceptual Photography? Go crazy with it! There are no limits. Fashion? It’s expected a lot of skin retouching, although there is already a big discussion here about reality and false standards…

…my point is: there is no such thing as a REAL photograph. That would be generalizing a tool we have to create meaning. The confusion with photography comes because we expect these images to be perfect reflexes of what we see with our own eyes, except that can’t happen. It’s just better if people understand the process to create pictures and that every photograph has a little impossible in them.
— Vitor Ceolin
I personally believe there’s a difference between a “genuine” or “vanilla” photo and a “real” photo. A genuine or vanilla photo is definitely one where there has been no photo edits, or very minor color adjustments at most. But a real photo doesn’t mean it’s genuine or vanilla per say. It means it’s real photo (duh). In other words, it’s not a painting, drawing, or any other form of art than that which was taken solely from a camera. Now some would disagree with this as there’s “photo mosaics”, so for Photoshop sake I’d say if the edited image is within 50% - 100% range of similarity between the original image(s), then it is still indeed a real photograph, though not a genuine or vanilla one.
— Chordsurge
Funnily enough this is the exact topic I did my final critical essay on for photography class. The idea that photography is an almost unfalsifiable medium; that it can and should only represent reality, is not only outdated but - at least in my opinion - also entirely false. Man Ray’s ‘rayographs’ are considered photography even though they do not involve the use of a camera, Jerry Uelsmann’s seminal surrealist images arguably bear a great resemblance to the digitally manipulated conceptual photography of today, yet were created entirely through masking many negatives in the darkroom. Hell, even Ansel Adams, a photographer who is often seen as this great figure of traditionalism and technique, talked about all the other things that filter in to the creation of an image besides the scene in front the camera. ‘You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.’ I think that’s a beautiful way of putting it. As such, using Photoshop to bring together all the constituent parts an image, as you have done here, is surely just another manifestation of this process, which has existed as long as the medium itself.
— Harry Dunkerley
It is not uncommon for those outside of the photography industry to hold the belief that a photograph has to be presented EXACTLY as it was shot for it to be considered “real”, especially in a digital age where the lines between documentation and creation are becoming increasingly blurred. It is now more difficult than ever to tell whether an image has been manipulated or not, and that is why it can be dangerous to give audiences a look into the process behind a photograph, because when people find out it HAS been manipulated, they feel cheated or lied to. Why? Why do they think photographs loose their authenticity by being edited? For us it’s a crucial part of the creative process, a means to complete our conceptual intentions, but to others its ‘cheating’. I think this is a very narrow view. To have an understanding of photography that DOESN’T include digital adjustment (which is part of the artistry) is, like Harry stated, completely outdated and false.
— Chris Gray-Kuiper
I am a portrait photographer and surreal artist and some people lately pointed out the same thing. “ This is not photography; this is just photoshop.” Well, art is being sometimes misunderstood, and I understand if it is. But I think that it is so easy nowadays to purchase an expensive camera, buy some basic software and move few sliders. What ‘s hard is to see the details and make the dream a reality. The video above shows HOURS of your hard work on just one photograph and I respect that! Photography is not only having an expensive gear and pressing the shutter button. It is creativity, patience, hard work, love, open-mindedness, dedication and most importantly passion!
— Piotr Skoczylas
This is what I think makes a real photograph, if an image can reach inside of you and pull such a powerful emotion from within your soul then that is what matters.
— Ryan Closson
So many ‘photographers’ these days simply just take a photo of without thinking about it and then slap a preset that they’ve purchased and call it art, they’ve skipped a huge part of the process that makes a great artist
— Tyler Rayburn
You and other Photographers are pioneering the way for break through composite work in the near future!
— Zell Thomas
Poison_Web (1).jpg

Each of these quotes from photographers in the industry have an underlying theme among them: it is that whether or not a photograph feigns reality by it’s post-processing technique, it remains a real photograph, and that the question then changes from “is this real?” to “what are you trying to tell us with this piece of art?” It’s a distinction that hinges on the INTENTION of the image, not on the merit of whether you or I call a photograph real. By that standard, I am currently floating 10 feet above the sand, sipping wine on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And I can fly. Anywhere.


...the question then changes from “is this real?” to “what are you trying to tell us with this piece of art?”


My point is this: our collective understanding of what makes a photograph a “real” photograph throughout the industry is not collective at all, nor should it be.


With a background in different intentions through photography, we are unable to determine what makes a “real" photograph. Instead, our intention should be noted and understood as we progress to show it through what we place in front of our lens, and what our viewers eventually see on their screen or printed in their laps.


Is a documentary photographer or photojournalist expected to capture and process images that tell a story different to the one that was captured to tell a story happening here and now, on the ground, as tangibly as the computer screen you’re reading this from?

Is a conceptual photographer or a fine art photographer expected to to simplify and reduce their process to the point where the surrealistic story, while rooted in real emotion and human understanding, becomes a puddle of bland taste relegated to someone else’s perception of reality?

Is a wedding photographer supposed to make me float in the air on a broom stick? Is my daughter’s senior portrait photographer supposed to take a photo of her sitting in her class at school, so they capture her “in reality”?

Photography should not be completely and entirely focused on whether or not a created image is a genuine fake. It should consider who we are and how we feel when we see that image. Emotion is the most incredible and quite possibly the most REAL “thing” any human will ever experience. It is the driver of action and the motivator of souls. This should be our first thought when creating photographs. Beyond this, we must understand our intention in creation.

In our ever-growing digital culture and ever-connectedness, we must stop drawing lines, and instead begin to understand who we are as creators and what we want to say to the world through the images we craft and create. Are we trying to capture the harsh reality of the conditions of the fishing villages of Southern Uganda? Do we want to show the beauty of a figure skate suspended in air, dangling over the ice? Are we trying to reach people emotionally to give them hope through a symbolic photograph?

If we as a group of photographers (read: artists) can understand WHY we create, we can stop calling names and start enjoying the images we’ve created. We only cross the line when we falsify a reality we are aiming to highlight. Anything beyond that is freedom from the difficulty that is reality in it’s own right.

Are the photographs you create real? Stop asking. Instead, begin wondering why you create, and try to understand why others create, too.

In this way, I hope we see more peace and appreciation for the photographs you and I create.


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I'm on a mission to show that the light will always pierce through the darkness.