Defining art in the digital age - What about photoshop?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Dress - Asos
 Heels - Asos

ART - The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

When we hear the word ‘art’, many of us are quick to envisage portraits by Rembrandt or sculptures by Michelangelo. Though we aren’t wrong, like everything else in society, the definition of art has evolved immensely over centuries and in today’s hyper-digital world, it’s landed on photoshop and editing.  

Photography has been popular for some time now, with recognised photographers like Cecil Beaton and Mario Testino understood to be ‘artists’ in the true sense. But when it comes to editing and photo manipulation, things start to get a little murkier.

The rise of the Instagram-generation, armed with their uber-powerful iPhone and colour-coordinated feed has given photography’s popularity a new dimension. Anyone with even a remote interest in photography is free to call themselves a photographer with no one to answer to but themselves. That is, until recently.

Last year, blogger Amelia Liana got a dose of some serious social media backlash for her photo editing. Watching the comments pour in, prompted me to think about what exactly is ‘art’ in this digital age and how do we define the boundary between a picture being ‘ethically’ edited or not.

Amelia, a travel blogger, got into a pickle for a picture posted atop Rockefeller Center with the picturesque skyline. The photo seemed to match her usually perfect feed but some said the photo was simply too perfect. Apparently, the skyline pictured is all wrong and what she presented didn’t add up to facts. Her fans were quick to accuse her of photoshopping and lying to her followers, calling her the dreaded f word – fake! The domino effect had started and soon Amelia’s picture-perfect feed began to topple, including a photo of the Taj Mahal where she’s accused of using an old photograph and superimposing herself onto it to avoid having to include the construction scaffolds that were up at the time.

Although Amelia’s vague response was quite carefully worded, it hints at photoshop. But is it really fake?

We’d be naïve to think that anyone with access to Instagram truly believes the photos presented there are an accurate description of reality. Your daily coffee, bed-time read, hell even your underwear is carefully chosen, arranged onto a background, saturated, highlighted and contrasted into perfection. I know not everyone does this but on an app that became popular on the sole basis of its filters to make everything look that much better, you’ve got to say who are we kidding?

I’ve seen many people accurately describe Instagram as their ‘highlight reel’ not their hustle and that’s honestly the best way I can put it. Popular tourist locations with only one beautifully dressed person in the shot is impossible, unless this happens to be taken in Greenland. It requires masterful use of photoshop. Most people either create situations (flatlays for example) or enhance them for Instagram. For example, I recently came across a gorgeous shot of a breakfast table full of fresh juice, fruits, and cold breakfast dishes served in a setting covered in snow. This was pitched to me as ‘breakfast goals’ but let’s be honest, no one wants to have juice with no gloves on, in an outdoor setting with extreme winter conditions. This picture was either absolutely fake or setup just for the ‘gram.

As someone who enjoys photography and editing, I know first hand how hard it is to get those perfect shots or even to edit and superimpose images. Photo editing requires skill, albeit a different type than traditional art, as well as a very active imagination.

Contrary to popular belief, digital cameras don’t see colour and light the way human eye does. If you captured a scene through photography and presented it without any manipulation, it is very likely that you would have a very flat image that does not evoke the same emotional response as it did when you were present in the scene. So, often the slight editing can bring the picture closer to reality. These kind of techniques have existed even before digital photography came around but were more manual and time consuming. 

Photographers have been superimposing pictures and adding environmental elements like clouds for decades. These techniques have been used for years in the movie and fashion industry, it’s just that today they have fallen into the hands of us mere mortals. Some would argue that the editing of bodies of actors and models for editorials and shoots are much more damaging and propagation of lies than some innocently doctored travel picture. In fact, even in the age of painters, there was always some level of ‘editing’ involved because painters simply didn’t include the things they didn’t want in their paintings. A recent exhibition I went to showcased the work of a Dutch painter who took different settings he’d witnessed in real life and layered them all to paint a scene. Is it likely that a flood, a tree-falling, a quaint village, a family trekking and birds flying all happened in the one moment and the painter captured it perfectly and within minutes onto his easel? I’ll let you answer that one.

Photo editing and manipulation to be executed beautifully, requires a lot of skill and you only have to see the work of likes of Riccardo Bagnoli, Erik Alms and Andric Ljubodrag to prove how much creative imagination can go into setting up pictures.

So if we go by the definition, photography and editing most definitely fall under art. The issue however is that people that are using these techniques and taking them too far to create fantasy are trying to sell it as reality instead. If Amelia wants to put in fake birds in her photos or superimpose multiple of her pictures together then that’s her prerogative and right as owner of her creativity but trying to pretend that they are completely real is where the issue lies. The solution is a two-pronged one. For creators to owning up to their skills and admitting where they have enhanced and for viewers to stop shaming them for it when they are honest and also put aside their own naiveté and not take everything at face value.

Links à la Mode, February 1st, 2018

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  1. This outfit is gorgeous! I love the background as well. Contrasts so well with the colours :)

  2. This is super interesting. It's honestly a really strange subject that we're tackling these days. But it's so important to remember that this is a world of social media that we live in, and almost nothing is the way it seems to be. BUT, that being said, it's also important to maintain a genuine relationship with followers. To me, honesty is always the best policy, but to each their own!
    Always loving the topics you tackle!

    Susie |

  3. Such an interesting topic!
    You look fab hun, great pictures!
    Kisses, Paola.


  4. This is a very interesting topic! I have heard about what Amelia's photos and I agree with what you have said, the problem is when people try to sell those images as reality.

    Have a great week!


    Seize your Style

  5. Very interesting topic! Social media is like any other form of media - as an audience we have to be smart enough to differentiate what's fake and what's not and not simply consume them. That's also why I don't take what I see in social media seriously. For me it's more of an entertainment than reality.

    Perfect pictures don't just happen, it takes talent and vast imagination to create them. Some people are born to it and would want to showcase their talent through social media and that's totally fine. But I agree with you that it shouldn't be misleading.

    I like your dress by the way. :)

    xx Sheryl |

  6. What a great and honest read. I don't know Amelia the blogger but I see tons of pictures where they take photoshop at a different level, the non reality level. Somehow those also get the most likes on Instagram. I also use Photoshop and wouldn't post anything on Instagram without it because people want to see good quality photos but like you said there is a difference between retouching the exposure and contrast to something that doesn't exist. Your photos in the other hand are really beautiful, great background combined with the stripe dress, Beautiful!

  7. You look stunning in that dress! Amazing pictures.

    xx Simone
    Little Glittery Box

  8. Really interesting topic, I enjoyed reading it very much! I think it must be super irritating for content creators to be called liars for not disclosing exactly how they edited and manipulated their photos. At the same time, like you said, presenting it as reality seems wrong as well. Clearly, there needs to be some sort of balance, but how to find that exactly I have no idea.

    Shann Eileen |

  9. I am not interested in edited photos, sure its art, but I love originality over everything. The only edit I did is for brightness, contrast, and very little filter to brought up the real color that are only eyes can detect.
    This is great sharing, thank you
    IG @grace_njio

  10. You look so cute in this monochrome look. Lovely post! <3
    Beauty and Fashion Freaks

  11. What a beautiful dress and photos! Have a great day!

    Gemma x

  12. Gorgeous outfit! And very interesting topic. I talk about stuff like this often too. The ethics of it are quite interesting! I look at programs like Photoshop as a part of art. If I want to add something or distort something or take something away, then I'm creating that and it's art. :)


  13. There is art and then there is photoshop to the point it's no longer real. I don't mind if someone is heavily into photoshop but when they are trying to sell it as 'real life' then I have a problem.

    Shireen⎜Reflection of Sanity

  14. Great outfit! :D

  15. I think Photoshop is art, as long as you don't try to sell it as snapshot of reality. Whether you paint with a digital device or with a brush doesn't really matter imo. No one would accuse Van Gogh for adding clues to his pictures if there weren't any.

    Anne - Linda, Libra, Loca

  16. Oh wow, this was such a well-written viewpoint of the topic. I feel as though it's absolutely an art, and not just photoshop but all of the other tools/software used to enhance imagery! But if it's put forward as reality, then it needs to stay at 'enhancing' and not cross the line of completely 'changing. Honestly, I think it all comes down to disclosure - as you've said! :)

    Gabrielle | A Glass Of Ice x