Issues of the ethics of "manipulation" trouble photographers, too. I have lost count of the number of agonized (and mainly specious) discussions I have read of how far it is "right" to alter or enhance what the unmediated lens delivers. Obviously, photo-journalists are a special case, and stand in the same relationship to "truth" as journalists: get caught faking it, and your career is likely over. Amongst others, Magnum's Paolo Pellegrin fell foul of this high standard recently. But, just as journalists also stand in relation to novelists on a spectrum of writing as "truth telling", so PJs stand in relation to artist-photographers as far as visual truth is concerned.
It's an interesting question -- and one which I am not remotely qualified to discuss -- whether "truth" has a necessary aesthetic dimension. A lot of people seem to think so. Famously, Buckminster Fuller was of the opinion that "when I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." Though I think I am more inclined to favour H.L. Mencken's equally famous view that "For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat, and wrong."
By the same token, one might wonder whether the reverse is true, that in creating an aesthetically-pleasing object, one is also creating a truth, or at least something very like it. A lot of the supposed "value" of art resides in that rather dodgy presumption. Can you reverse-engineer the beauty of a sausage into the "truth" of a pig? I don't think so, but I'm not aware that anyone has ever tackled that particular problem. A good sausage is its own kind of truth, of course.
But back to photography. Now, let's just accept that there is inherent jiggery-pokery involved in capturing the beams of light reflected off a scene, snapping them off just so, and turning the withered beam-ends into electrickery which can be stored, passed through wires, and reconstituted like instant coffee into a 2-D representation bearing a sort-of resemblance to the original scene. Miraculous! Frankly, to worry about the truthiness of the end product seems downright ungrateful. But it's usually the ethical truth people are worrying about, rather than the epistemological truth. How far is too far?
Consider these three images, recently submitted to my own Ethics Committee:
The first I showed in a recent post. It's a "straight" photo, inasmuch as anything which been slightly cropped, and had its colour-channel levels, saturation, and sharpness adjusted in Photoshop can be said to be "straight". The Ethics Committee are not even slightly troubled by it.
The second, obviously, is the same file, a little more tightly cropped, and rendered as a monochrome image, so as to resemble the colour and tonal range of a platinum-type print. It looks really great printed on Hahnemühle Matt Fine Art paper. But it's a fake, in that it is not a platinum print, with all the skill and artisanal wizardry that would imply. Do I care? No. But I think the Ethics Committee would have a problem, if I were to go very much further down this road, to the point where I could be said to be trying to pass this off as a hand-crafted platinum print. I could easily put an irregular "hand-coated" border around the image, for example, and maybe varnish it to give it a more interesting finish. I have seen precisely such work for sale in expensive limited editions. We're in "wood effect" or "tribute act" territory here, I think.
The third, equally obviously, is the same file as the second, but with the cow moved by the power of Photoshop in an attempt to "improve" the composition. If I were a
The fourth version -- in which the cow has been removed, and an enormous, glistening roast-beef joint occupies the pen, with the words MEAT IS MURDER printed on it -- is not shown here because it is on display at the Dosh Kerching Gallery in London, vastly enlarged, and gratifyingly highly priced. Wittily, it is part of a conceptual series about the ethics of representation. I didn't even bother to show it to the Ethics Committee. So sue me.