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One of the myths about photography which digital imaging has thankfully blown away is that corny old phrase, "The camera doesn't lie." Paranoid observers lament digital imaging because they feel that it has destroyed the very integrity of the photograph. Some would even like to see a symbol on every manipulated image.

What a pretentious load of old tosh, typical of those who try to control what we see - in our very best interests, of course. In truth, every image would have to be labelled as manipulated because every image is manipulated - and always has been since long before digital imaging. And I'm not just thinking of the work of photographers Oscar Rejlander (1813-1875), William Lake Price (1810-1896) or Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), all of whom produced composites from a number of separate images way back in Victorian times. I'm thinking of the more basic controls such as choice of lens and viewpoint, moment of exposure and - most important of all - selective composition and cropping. All these tools make every image the biased product of its creator's mind. The revered 'National Geographic' magazine caused an outcry just a few years ago when it dared to 'use the digits' to move the Egyptian Pyramids slightly to fit their cover layout more conveniently. Big deal. William Lake Price published his 'Manual of Photographic Manipulation' way back in 1858. There ain't nothin' new in this world.

'The Sport' has long been one of the best sources of examples of digital manipulation. Breasts use silicon, rather than silicone, to take on enormous proportions; London Transport buses are found on the moon. But 'The Sport's' use of manipulation is fun. It is the macabre use by some governments which should worry us. Many governments have distorted and manipulated photographic evidence for propaganda, though none seems to have been more prolific that the Soviet Union under Stalin. Uncle Joe exterminated those who fell from favour in two ways: death and removal from photographs. (Check out "The Commissar Vanishes" in the EPIcentre Library.) No wonder there is so much concern about photographic integrity now that anyone - not just governments with resources to commission the finest retouchers - can manufacture 'the truth' so easily.

There was a time when, if you wanted a 'likeness' of yourself and family, you commissioned the high street portrait painter who would make you look your best in oils on canvas. Record pictures were the major use of painting - for portraits, the naked mistress, the new yacht, the country estate or just a reminder of the Grand Tour through Europe. Then, suddenly, in the nineteenth century, painting was freed from these responsibilities as a representative medium. Artists like J M W Turner developed split artistic personalities and painted in two styles: the formal and the free. Others turned to impressionism, pointillism, abstract.

What freed painting from its shackles was photography. Photography took on the responsibility of recording images dispassionately, leaving painters to become artists, to follow the freedom of their imaginations.

History has a habit of repeating itself and now the same has happened in imaging. Digital is the liberation of imaging, freeing it from its photographic limitations. Digital is the democratisation of imaging, bringing it to everyone, freeing it from the photo-alchemists who use dodgy substances in dark, smelly rooms. "Digital imagers do it in broad daylight" should be our proud bumper sticker.

 You can get a BA (Honours) in photography these days without so much as taking a photograph. These courses take photography to be a significant element of our culture - one which has the important ability to be used to convey facts and ideas. They study the consequences of photographic techniques and strategies for communication using images by analyzing what photographers have done. Then they tell us - in words - what the photographer could only tell us through their images. These courses inevitably lag behind the trailblazers who chart their way fearlessly through the new frontiers. They merely explain what could not be understood at the time.

Many artists could never sell their paintings while they lived but, now that the 'experts' have finally caught up, the same paintings sell for millions. The same will happen with the digital images being produced today. True, there is a great deal of derivative dross out there. But the digital Vincent Van Gogh could be you.

So don't be brow-beaten by the do-gooders who would have you reigned in. Pull the wool over everyone's eyes. Stir their emotions. Make them doubt, make them cautious, make them think, make them worry. Remember the golden rule. There's only one situation when you absolutely shouldn't fake it - when you're making love. So go forth and manipulate. And enjoy.

This article first appeared as the "Henshall" column in "Digital PhotoFX" magazine, Issue 4, June 1998.

This document is Copyright © 1998 John Henshall. All rights reserved.
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