Truth, Lies, and Digital Doctoring on Photographs

Back in the ‘80s, there was a great ad campaign for cassette tapes (anyone remember those?) put out by Memorex. It suggested their tapes made such high-quality recordings, a person might not realize they were recordings. “Is it real or is it Memorex?” was such a popular campaign; people started using the phrase to describe any fake that was convincing. These days we’ve got a new question for that situation, at least with photography: Is it real or is it Photoshop? The difference now is that it’s often harder to tell.

The rise of photo-editing software spurs the skeptic in us all. Almost any striking photo makes us question whether we’re seeing something from reality or something doctored up—perhaps even completely Frankensteined together—from the artist’s imagination. Skeptic is not a bad word here: Photographs are powerful forces, and when documenting (as with photojournalism) or influencing (as with fashion magazine covers), there’s a strong argument to have them vetted. One 2012 study even showed that our very own memories can be revised by doctored photographs. To think, a stealth Photoshopper could rewrite someone’s history!

On the brighter side, there are also studies that show how photography can reinforce accurate memories of real things in our lives. And ironically, this is where I think digital photo-processing, done right, can be a godsend—because, hey, sometimes photos become truer with a little doctoring. They might not tell the truth about the photographer’s raw camera skills, but they tell the truth about what the photographer saw. Particularly for amateur photographers, SOOC (straight out of camera) photographs don’t always do that. With photo-editing software, it’s possible to make corrective adjustments until the photograph comes to life in a way that makes the photographer go, “Ah-ha. Now, that’s what my mind saw.” Isn’t that the point? We want to remember what moved us, and why.

Maybe the question shouldn’t be “Is it real or is it Photoshop?” Photoshopping doesn’t necessarily make an image “not real.” Sometimes it can do quite the opposite. Maybe the question should really be Does it tell the truth?

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