The improvements of computer performances and the rapid development of digital photography over the past few years have increasingly facilitated the digital manipulation of photographs. This has raised up many disputes about the distinction between digital images and unmanipulated photographs, and about the need to post the nature of a digitally modified picture.
Although I do not wish to argue about the virtues and limitations of digital art, in this context, I thought it could be useful, or desirable, that I clarify my thinking on the digital processing of my photographs, the computer intervention being indeed unavoidable in web publishing.
In short, I consider that the pictures I present here are unmanipulated, to the extent that they are faithful to the photograph recorded on the film, or to the scene as I recall it. Any picture departing from these criteria would be marked as modified digitally and, accordingly, hosted in a specific digital gallery. Of course, matters are not that simple, as faithful does not mean identical and as my recollection would naturally be subjective. I think nevertheless that most people would find this position reasonable.
I shall now explicit these ideas and provide more details about the actual processing of my photographs before their inclusion in these web galleries.
I used to think of photographs as relatively objective representations of people and places. That was before I involved myself more seriously into photography. It does not take much time to realize that photographs are actually highly subjective depictions of reality. (Otherwise, why would you ever need a photographer?) Indeed, technical, aesthetic, and conceptual decisions impact the final image as much as the subject photographed.
I do not mean that no form of objectivity can be retained in the photographic process. I simply wish to point out that an "unmanipulated" photograph is already an interpretation of the reality depicted. In a scientific study, the relevant subjective aspects of a photograph should probably be strongly reduced, or at least quantified. However, photography as an expression medium may naturally favour a subjective approach over a purely descriptive one. In this instance, the emotional content of the photograph and the photographer's intent prevail over the sole physical description.
The photographer portrays thus reality subjectively because, through his intentions and technical choices, he influences strongly our perception while we lack the contextual information and ability to evaluate this influence. Photographs seem nevertheless objective due to their accurate rendition of the subject and the oft-underestimated photographer's role.
The viewer's emotional response to the photograph and its content mixes the reaction to physical elements, forming essentially the graphical design of the photograph, with a combination of imagination and empathy, that may intensify on the ground that the scene has occurred. In the appreciation of a photograph, the emphasis on the materiality of the scene depicted depends on the viewer. (I am not discussing the context in which the photograph is used, which could naturally require strict materiality, on ethical ground.) Note that materiality does not imply neutrality of the photographer, as scenes can be set-up, posed, or edited. The advent of digital imaging has overtly severed the link between the accurate rendition of the content and its materiality. Therefore, to avoid deceiving, I mean inadvertently, people who like to find a connection between photographs and reality, I believe that digitally-modified pictures should be marked as such.
The digital intervention
Needless to say, any photograph seen on a computer has necessarily been digitized and, consequently, differs to some extent from the original image on the film emulsion. The simple act of scanning and reproducing the image on the screen modifies it strongly, due to the limitations of scanners, computer screens, inaccurate monitor calibrations, differing color renditions, etc. In fact, additional computer interventions are often required in order to adapt the photograph to the medium and actually keep the digital image faithful to its original. However, I definitely do not think that such images should be considered much differently than their originals. There is of course a wide range of degrees in the modification of an image digitally. The difficulty is often to determine at which point you alter the content of the image instead of tuning its rendition.
Digital vs classical image manipulation
There is already a whole variety of means other than the computer that influence the appearance of a photograph and the perception of its content. Many are totally accepted, while others may be more questionable. This, of course, depends on the intended use of the photograph. Surely, in the computer area, some techniques should be accepted - some are already - while others should be used with relative caution to avoid deceiving people involuntarily. I assume that considering equivalent computer and analog effects could give the border between the benign and the severe computer modifications.
My belief is that, as long as you do not alter the subjective content of the original, you may consider the photograph unmanipulated. (I am not talking about newsworthy photographs.) This may seem quite contradictory at first but, considering that many aspects of photography and photographs are subjective, and I should probably even say, intentionally subjective, it simply means that preserving the qualitative features of a photograph usually matter more than needlessly and vainly (or, alternatively: expensively!) trying to get every bits and parts of it quantitatively identical to the original.
In practice, the processing of my images involves scanning from slide, color correction and contrast adjustment of the scan, dust removing, cropping (occasionally), resizing, and sharpening. Nothing unusual there! I do not remove telephone poles growing out of people's head (but when I photograph a telephone pole, I make sure no one sits in front of it!). I certainly do not make any wild color modification. (Besides, I do not use color filter as well, but I will not hesitate to play on the film response to ambient light and exposition duration to get sometimes unusual color effects.)
I do my best to reproduce the original image but I usually consider that if I have obtained an image that pleases me and is faithful to the original slide or scene, then I may stop further work on it, at least temporarily, since, anyway, the remaining differences are most likely much smaller than people to people visions of the scene if they were present and monitor to monitor variations, while it still conveys my vision. The latter summarizes what I mean by preserving the subjective content. On this website, any gallery picture modified otherwise would thus be marked as such and found in specific digital galleries. I believe my position to be reasonable. Well, of course, it cannot be to anyone opposed to any computer modification at all but, then, photographic websites could only be myths.