Photo manipulation: we all do it. Whether it’s choosing the perfect filter for your Instagram, resizing images to crop out visual clutter, or cosmetic touches, ours is a generation of posed perfection. These actions are commonplace, so routine that we engage in them on an almost subconscious level, barely recognizing that we are actively altering an image from its original state. I mean, what’s the harm, right? It’s the final product that matters, the one you put on display for all to see. With those small changes, that final product simply turns out looking better, carries a message more effectively. If the end goal is to have a memorable picture that attracts attention, and manual adjustments help to do that, what’s the big deal?
New York Times columnist Errol Morris tackles this issue of photographic manipulation and its effects on public perception and the historic record in his thought-provoking opinion piece, “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?.” In this series of three articles, Morris examines a pair of hotly-debated images taken by British photographer Roger Fenton in the midst of the Crimean War. Depicting the same stretch of road in a particularly battle-riddled area, the presence of fallen cannonballs off the side of the road in one picture and their seemingly-subsequent placement on the road in the other lie at the center of the controversy:
Were the cannonballs placed on the road by Fenton and his assistant in the hopes of achieving a more dramatic image? Or were they moved off the road and harvested by British soldiers to be fired again at the next battle? Seeking to definitively determine the photographs’ ordering, Morris travels to the modern-day Crimea to investigate. Through personal examination of the valley’s terrain along with the consultation of experts from various fields from museum curators to forensic photography analysts, Morris ultimately draws the conclusion that the cannonballs were, in fact, placed on the road after the photograph of the cleared road was taken. The second image was, in a sense, staged.
Do we know Fenton’s reasoning behind staging the second photograph? Not definitively. From viewing the two images, the “cannonballs-on” one certainly carries a more dramatic impact than its cleared-road counterpart. The possibility that Fenton was aiming primarily for an emotional impact, sending a specific message to his viewers, is very real.
Does the knowledge that Fenton staged this image affect its credibility as a resource? Perhaps not entirely. Despite its artificial origins, the image itself remains an evocative piece, depicting the grimmer aspects of a war-plagued landscape.
So how do historians deal with altered or staged images? Do we write them off as “fake” and thus cast them aside? In a separate article, “Photography as a Weapon,” Morris argues that we actually stand to benefit from further examination of such photos. Studying these images, according to Morris, offers a prime opportunity to investigate a photographer’s motivations, audience reactions, and the relationship between photography’s dual roles as an artistic and social medium, and as a purported purveyor of historic truth.
Do you agree? Can historians stand to learn as much from an altered image than from an untouched one? What does the present commonplace nature of photographic manipulation tell us about today’s society?