Artsy for Education
Resources for discovering and learning about art online

Photography and Manipulation

Since it’s photography week, we thought it would be helpful to focus on some major characteristics of contemporary photography. We decided to start with manipulation

So much photography today is manipulated in some respect. In other words, something has been done to the image between the moment the button has been pressed to "take" the picture and the establishment of the picture's final "look." (Instagram filters are the most immediate example of this.) However, the word "manipulated" is most commonly used in art circles to identify works in which not just color or contrast have been "corrected" or "enhanced" but whose final form differs markedly from what might have originally been seen through the lens. 

Elaborate edits to pictures are nothing new. As early as the 1850s, photographers such as Oscar Gustave Rejlander or Henry Peach Robinson were staging elaborate scenes and combining dozens of negatives to create visually compelling, deceptively realistic, composite images. Yet today—particularly because of the birth of digital photography and the ubiquity of photo-editing software—the manipulated is everywhere, even (and now most often) in the palm of your hand.   

On Artsy, there are various ways to explore manipulated photography. To see all works understood in this way, click on Manipulated Photography. Or explore some more specific ways in which photographs are (or have been) manipulated, such as through the use of multiple exposures or the inclusion of "negative" images. Also, while they do not employ digital editing techniques, often grouped into the class of manipulated works, are "staged" works; photographs created using a camera obscura; and the practice of photomontage.

Photographic manipulation, from its early days, prompted heated debate in art circles. Many believed through such techniques, photography was trying to be like painting, and this prompted the question of whether or not photography was an art form or just a mechanical process. People wondered if photographers should inject artistry (i.e., what were understood as "painterly" approaches) into their work, or let photographs stand on their own as truthful documents of the world around them. 

For most people today, these questions have been put to rest. Photography operates in both ways simultaneously. It has been discussed as the equal of painting, due to its formal experimentation, and at the same time, it operates (alongside its offspring—film and video) as the primary means through which we are delivered evidence and (what we conceive broadly as) truth.

A final note: if you're more of a purist and don’t care for manipulated works, try looking at Documentary Photography or Contemporary Realist Portraiture. To see all of our photo-related genes in one place, see our previous post