Exercise – The Real and the Digital

We are invited to read an extract (pp73-75) from Derrick Price’s chapter ‘Surveyors and Surveyed’ in Liz Wells’ Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition, 2009). The extract, ‘The real and the digital’ is available as a student resource on the OCA website, which is fortunate because it does not exist in my 2nd edition (2000) copy. I had intended to insert the word ‘unsurprisingly’ in the previous sentence but I note from the equivalent section of Stephen Bulls’ ‘Photography’, ‘Digital debates: Revolution or evolution’ (Bull 2010, pp20-23) that wide critical examination of digital photography began around 1990

Price notes the contemporary emergence of new types of digital media and raises  sets of questions about the nature of photography, the photographic image and its connection with reality. Bull sees two stages in the debates about digital imaging: the first, in the early to mid-1990s was about the apparent changes brought about by digital technologies and whether (to paraphrase Delaroche) ‘from today, photography is dead!’ – the second stage was a recognition that manipulation of images had existed from the earliest days of photography; although the questions remain, they are not exclusively about digital photography.

I briefly examined ways that photography could be seen to lie in a posting in my EYV blog. Apart from the section on retouching, none were specifically Photoshop-related.

I find it interesting that the debate about the extent to which photographs can be manipulated and new realities created has come full circle. In the camera club world, and in the Royal Photographic Society ARPS assessment process, there is debate about the difference between ‘pictorial’ and ‘creative’ images. In the RPS, the Visual Art assessment category was briefly split into Pictorial and Creative categories (Pictorial images being derived from a single file without extensive manipulation, Creative being more manipulated or composited) which have now merged back into a single Fine Art category. This mirrors the early 20th century revolt by Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott and others against the Pictorialists such as Henry Peach Robinson, Oscar Rejlander and Julia Margaret Cameron. The argument can be followed through essays by Robinson, Abbott, Weston and others in Trachtenberg (2005). I am amused to see that the word ‘pictorial’ has changed sides at some time between the historical and present debates. My own view is that a lot of words could have been saved if we recognised that ‘photography’ and ‘digital imaging’ are two different activities.

Digital imaging does not have to start with photography at all. Price notes that photorealistic images can be created ‘from scratch’ on the computer. However, digital imaging does not have a sole claim to photorealism, which seems to have been the aim of at least one branch of airbrush-artwork from the 1990s onward (see image below) and ‘airbrushing’ was once a technique for manipulating photographic images, before Photoshop.

Price is concerned that this ability to create and manipulate images might destroy photography’s claim to show things as they are, and to raise doubts about documentary and photojournalism which rely on claims of objectivity and realism. Bull’s view, citing Geoffrey Batchen, is that every photograph involves some form of manipulation, even if it occurs in-camera with framing, use of flash or selection of shutter speed and aperture (therefore depth of field). ‘To Batchen digitally manipulated photographs do what photography has always done: depict the world as an altered version of itself.’ (Bull 2010, 23) By this reading, digital photography is not a revolution, simply a stage in the continuing evolution of photography.


Bull, S. (2010). Photography. London: Routledge.

Trachtenberg, A. (2005). Classic essays on photography. 1st ed. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books.

Wells, L.(ed) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge


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