Is It Real, or Is It Digital?

I don’t know how many of y’all are old enough to remember the old Memorex commercials on tv, the ones where they played a snippet of sound and asked, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” It was impossible for the audience to tell, of course, and I always kind of resented the commercials because, hey: it was *on TV* which meant it couldn’t be live even it it was supposed to be live. Right? And that was when my brain would begin to hurt. What was live and what was pretending-to-be-live and what wasn’t live at all? What did “live” mean, anyway? Aieeeeee.

I don’t watch tv any more, but I find myself feeling similarly confounded by much of the two-dimensional art I see online. Photographs, collage, art journal pages. It looks real, but is it? In the age of digital everything, it’s often impossible to tell whether something was made by hand or created digitally, or–even more difficult–created by a combination of both. Photographs are particularly confounding. Many, if not most, have been at least tweaked a little. They’ve been cropped or color enhanced or desaturated. More and more, journal pages and collages have been similarly altered, with the work being scanned in and tweaked just the tiniest bit.

In an age where the images of a work of art are often more valuable than the work itself, it’s unreasonable to expect that artists won’t take every opportunity to make those photographs as perfect as possible. And when everyone with a camera phone is a photographer and even bloggers are springing for good quality SLRs, the drive to produce stunning photographs is way more compelling than the desire to capture images that can be presented without enhancement. Why spend three hours hanging around waiting for the perfect shaft of light to hit that tree when you can take a a couple dozen shots and add in the light later in the comfort of your studio? With collage, why bother learning how to create great texture on canvas when you can add that in digitally? If you’re selling prints in your Etsy shop, rather than originals, why not take advantage of editing software to let you do things that don’t require drying time or getting plaster under your fingernails? If you want the image of a Victorian lady in mourning attire for a journal page, why go to the effort to find and acquire an actual image on paper when you can find one online and download it for a nominal fee, if there’s any cost at all?

I don’t know how I feel about all of this. Of course, how I feel about it doesn’t matter: the only opinions that matter are those of the artist and her intended audience, but still. It feels odd not to know what’s real and what’s not. When I look at fabulous photographs, I like to believe that I’m seeing a moment in time, something that really existed just like it was captured. I want to believe the light really did slant in just that way, and that the bird really was that startling shade of blue. When I look at a photograph of clouds, I don’t like wondering whether or not that formation actually existed or if I’m looking at a color-enhanced compilation of days’ worth of cloud photos.


Un-tweaked, un-cropped, unaltered photo of clouds by Earl Zachery

I could have cropped the above photo or made it even more colorful or done a whole bunch of other tweaking, but I love knowing that this image shows what clouds really looked like on one particular day, not what they might possibly have looked like without the telephone poles under them or if the sky had been a little darker or if there had been a touch more orange.

Perhaps it comes from having grown up in a time before virtual reality, when things were pretty much as you saw them: if you saw a photograph of something mysterious–say, fairies in a garden, like the photographs of the Cottingley Fairies–you might doubt that those were real fairies flitting among the trees, but you didn’t doubt that they were something. Some. Thing. Something that existed somehow, whether they were actual flying beings or paper dolls or little creatures constructed of bits of cardboard and hatpins. You didn’t look at those photos and think they were photos of a garden with digital enhancements.

Harold Snelling, an expert on photography, studied the Cottingley photographs and determined not whether the fairies were real living creatures, but that the photographs themselves were “straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time.” I think that’s what is key for me: I like to know if I’m looking at something–or a photo of something–that actually existed In Real Life, or if it’s something else. The something else–something that existed only digitally, a combination of computer manipulation and the imagination of the artist–can be quite wonderful, and there’s an ever-expanding place for digital art. I just hope, for literalists like me, that there will always also be a place for work that hasn’t been tweaked or enhanced.

You may also like these articles:

This entry was posted in The Creative Life: A Mixed Media Blog and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is It Real, or Is It Digital?

  1. CarolineA says:

    I have to agree. I like knowing that the art I view exists outside of a computer and a printer and has never been near Photoshop. That its original art, not clever art. Digitally enhanced images can be wonderful and inspiring, but at the end of the day they do not exist without the digital world and the click of a mouse button is simply not the same as controlling a pencil or using the flow of paint to create an image.
    I know this is a controversial subject and opinions are very divided. I also suspect that digital art is far too new to be considered an art form in its own right at this point in time. Technology has a long way to go and what we marvel at now will be considered primitive in 10 years time. I do know it will never have the spontaneity of original art, whether its a grand painting or a sketch in a journal, simply because the process that creates it is quite different, and its that difference that will define its place in the art movement. Both will have their place, but we do have to learn and appreciate the differences and try not to compare the two, because they are not the same, and never will be.

  2. Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

    I love this comment, Caroline–very thoughtful, and your point about what we marvel at today being primitive in 10 years is intriguing. You’re right, and it’s hard to imagine what we’ll find marvelous then but fun to think about.

  3. TH Wolfe says:

    Hi Rice,
    I would like to respond to your post, though it is a bit delayed. I am not a professional photographer, but as a digital artist, I create original art from my photographs and by painting with a tablet. To complete a single image, I will have created multiple layers, just like I do when I work with fiber or mixed media. I use many of the same general techniques, but with a different way of making it happen. For example, I do value studies, make an under-painting, use different brushes, layer, glaze, blend, and erase. I proudly label my work as a digital painting.

    In my opinion, the only time altering a photo is problematic is when the photo is for documentation, such as for a news story or marketing, and used to mislead. I have a number of friends who are photographers. They shoot with both film and digital cameras. It is a misperception that photos taken before Photoshop were not altered.

    Professional photographers, whether using film or digital, have been altering photos for a long time.
    Alteration starts with the capture. With film, it starts with the choice of film, the camera and lens, the filter added to the lens, the camera settings, the time of day, the lighting, the use of reflectors, the way the image is framed, whether the camera is in motion or stabilized…the decisions are many and are planned and implemented thoughtfully by the photographer.

    Once the film is out of the camera and into the dark room, choices continue and are influenced by many factors over which the photographer has control. Once the negative is developed, it is retouched. Many of the processes available on Photoshop were initiated in the dark room. My sister-in-law used to retouch photos professionally. She would sit with a small brush and paint carefully on the negative, artfully adding and removing parts of the image. Ansel Adams was a master of dodging and burning his black and white images.

    After a negative is retouched, the printing provides even more opportunities for altering the final photo. Cropping, multiple exposures, enlarging, reducing, filters, the paper and chemicals used for processing are some of the choices that influence the end product. If the photographer works with a lab, photos require proofing to make sure the colors are printed accurately.

    I believe that one of the main differences today is that the process is more accessible to the general public as more have access to computers and software. That being said, it still takes quite a bit of technical know-how to create a professional digital image. Again, choices start with the camera and continue through to the final printing. A different skill set may be used, but the outcome is the same. The image represents what the photographer saw through the lens, as well as her interpretation of the experience at the time the picture was taken. To me, that is the beauty of any art form. We get to see the world through the eye of the artist.