Friday, December 28, 2018


In what follows, I mean story in the wideest reasonable sense. You can probably substitute context without any trouble. I am also going to ruthlessly use male pronouns, because in almost all cases the archetype I refer to with the pronoun is male.

Every photograph has a story. Well, it has several, and potentially has infinitely many different ones. The first story, though, is the one about how it was taken. This story is inextricably bound up with the story of what's in the frame, how the subject matter got there and where it's going. This story is that essential no shit, there I was, and then... story. This is the story that makes a photograph a photograph and not a painting.

Suppose that you've photoshopped a picture. You've removed a sign, deleted a logo from a hat, removed a power line. You've altered the facts of the picture in some way.

If challenged on this, you are quite likely to say assert that this is OK because all that matters is the final result. Process, you might cry, does not matter. And, sure, who am I to deny you?

At this point, though, you have given up rather more than you might think. You no longer own the philosophical high ground of the picture's first story, it's "true" story. The story of how you went there, and did this, and shot that picture is no longer truly yours to tell. The story of what is going on in the frame is no longer truly yours to tell. The story of what was actually there in front of the lens is no longer truly yours to tell.

You can still tell those stories, but if you're honest, you must also tell the story of how you used the clone tool to remove the logo on the hat, and at that point nobody cares, they wander off, and you've lost them. That's not a story about the picture, it's a story about you.

And so it is with all made art. A sculpture, a painting, a collage (even of photographic material, cf. Michael Chisholm and his spirit guide Hannah Höch) these are all the fruits of the artist's mind, not the (direct) fruits of the world. We expect of these things that the story be the artist's story, not the world's.

Indeed, there are fairly straight photos which are also, really, just the fruit of the artist's mind. This, for instance, is really just an illustration for an essay, although I made it with a camera and, while I plunged a certain amount of material into darkness, did not otherwise substantively alter:

People argue, at length if you let them, that "all pictures are processed!!! photoshop is no different!!!" and, while technically true, it is the refuge of a pedant who wishes desperately to continue to remove signs from his pictures.

There is a difference between on the one hand a reasonably good faith effort, limited by the capabilities of the machine, to represent what was truly there, and on the other hand a picture which specifically and deliberately differs from what was truly there. In the first case, the photographer can without prevarication, without disingenuously eliding a few details of photoshop, tell that first story, no shit, there I was, and then... In the second case, the photographer, if he is being honest, must bring himself into the story, and explain his concept, his idea of what it ought to have looked like, but did not.

The line between the two is not distinct, there is arguably a broad grey area. But, as I have noted in the past, the existence of a grey area between two things does not make those two things the same. The categories exist, whether the line between them be sharp or indistinct.

When you remove the logo from the boy's hat, in your photo, you change the character of the picture by changing the character of the story it lives with. Probably you don't care about the story, probably you care mainly about the graphic character of the picture. about what it looks like because you're a photographer, not a philosopher or a critic.

Still, by doing that work, you either abdicate entirely any right to the underlying story, or you insist on supplying your own, on supplying the story of the artist and not the world.

Now, this is perhaps a small thing. A photograph can always be thrown to the ground, story-less, to be discovered by a boy, a nun, or an MFA student. The finder will supply their own story, their own interpretation, their own guesses, whether you removed the logo from the hat or not. There are those infinite potential stories that the picture might live with, some day. Those are all still there.

But that first story, the one that makes it a photograph, that one's gone, because you photoshopped it out.


  1. As a Here-is-what-I-saw photographer (as opposed to, say, a Here-is-how-I-felt-about-what-I-saw photographer), I agree with your position completely.

    Whatever is in front of my camera during the time the shutter is open will also appear in the final photo ... Q.E.D.!

  2. I don’t care about these competing stories, but then I’m not generally interested in documentary. If what’s behind the curtain is in any way more interesting than what’s behind Door No. 1, then its Door No. 2 for me, Monty.

    If they’re both boring then thank you, try again.

    1. doesn't matter. for the most part you don't get to decide. the people who look at your pictures are gonna do that.

  3. Very few photographs have any kind of a story. That's a problem. For example, 'This is a tree that I saw' is not a story. 'I made this darker than it really was, because it looks more sinister and threatening' is also not a story. Those are mere fragments of story-telling, for the kinds of stories you might use to teach children how to read.

    Comic books are a far more potent and successful medium for story-telling than photography will ever be.

    I think there are some photographers who wish they could be film directors or, at least, cinematographers (there's also a bunch of "video artists", but that's a whole other, equally unedifying spectacle). Some of the still photographers even stage elaborate sets, and blow up their images to cinematic proportions. Doesn't work. Photography ain't cinema, can't do what cinema does, which is: tell stories.

    What a still photographer can attempt to do, is to suggest that a story happened, is happening, or is about to happen, in a single image or sequence of related shots that may (or not) have been taken at roughly the same time and place. Still photographs, alone or in sequence have the potential power to trigger that kind of suggestibility. That is all.

    1. I led in by suggesting that the word "story" as I was about to use it might readily be replaced with "context" and that I would be using it this broad sense.

      I do not mean "story" to mean "and then this happened, and then this happened" although that is included within the meaning I intend.

  4. A lot depends on why you are photographing. News? You don't add or remove things even as you dodge and burn a bit. You don't change the basic image - even though such as Eugene Smith have done so through the decades.
    Personal and artistic images - the sky is the limit. They are interpretations, not records of what was in front of the camera.
    So, we learn to change the narrative with lens choice, ISO and film choice with aperture and shutter speed changes and then our choice of viewpoint - where to stand and how high or low we stand.

    1. To be honest, I am not certain you have understood my remarks.