I don’t really suffer for my art, but I sometimes wonder what motivates some regarding what they do, especially with historical artworks. Not that what follows is anything new, but I believe that there are ways in which you can adapt historical artworks, and then there are ways that you should not. Of course, as with everything it’s a matter of taste but, unfortunately, that makes just about everything fair game in the ‘art’ world, whether it’s in good taste or bad taste. So what follows is a bit of a navel gazing exercise on Photoshop, portraiture and good and bad taste.
First off, I’d like to introduce the Costică Acsinte Archive, which represents an archive of historical photographs that are being painstakingly restored before they succumb to the ravages of time: One Man’s Quest to Save a Haunting 5,000-Portrait Archive from the Clutches of Time. The photos represent the life and times of Romanian people since World War I and each of the photographs shows proud individuals from a different era to ours, posing for the photographer.
As these photographs no longer have any copyright, it appears that they are fair game to all and sundry to use and re-interpret to suit anyone’s whim. Now I have no issue when people re-interpret any works of art etc (legally of course), but I feel that when such is done, it should respect the prior art and especially individuals depicted in that art, when they have no say regarding what is done to their images. Some, however don’t appear to have a great deal of taste or regard to those they use for their purposes, as evidenced by these Photoshopped creations that have been called ‘fine art portraits’. I won’t reproduce any of the images, as I believe them to be crass and childish, and if the intent was to respect the original photographer and his subjects, I think its failed. The question also arises as to what represents good Photoshopping or post-processing and what does not.
Post-processing, or Photoshopping, can take any shape or form and there are no set rules as to what is right or wrong, and can be lightly or heavily applied, and can sometimes be completely irreverent. However, there are some innate standards regarding what is good, poor and unacceptable, as has often been expressed when someone crosses the line as evidenced in the media from time to time. It’s a lot more difficult when it comes to some of the greyer areas of photography. That said, it’s always the intent of the photographer and subject that’s important as to how they are presented, not for some third party who feels that they can do a better job to fit the times or a slow week. A different scenario of course is if you post an out of focus, poorly lit, inexpressive image, where the photography forums will come down on you mercilessly – that’s a given. A great example of such can be found in this parody of photography forums. And when you post something out of the ordinary…
Now I have no axe to grind with anyone who does anything that they want with their own photography, or whatever they create in the name of art. But when it comes to physically manipulating the works of others, that to me raises obligations and moral issues, and when it’s done in such a childish manner as in the manipulation of the Costica Acsinte photographs, then I think is debases all professional photographers. It’s not a matter of whether you like or dislike the outcomes, art is always in the eye of the beholder, but I think there is a line (not that fine either) between respect and disrespect for the works of others and individuals, when they form part of the works. If it looks like parody, smells like parody and tastes like parody, then it’s parody; perception is the key and enacting damage control after the effect, in an attempt to maintain respectability is pointless. Again, what you do with your own, original, works is up to you and no one is entitled to complain.
Now there are some fantastic artisans and artists when it comes to the use of Photoshop, I’m not one of them. My Photoshop skills are very limited and relegated to simple tasks that especially don’t involve creating things that never existed in the original scene. That’s not to suggest that I don’t change things using Lightroom or Photoshop, as it’s almost required with modern day digital cameras, and is the only way in which it’s possible to create what you see in your mind’s eye when you take a photograph. Of course it was a completely different thing when I did news and sports, altering the image was completely forbidden, though lens effects were allowed. So fun can sometimes be had with post-processing.
At the end of the day, whether you agree or not, I do believe that anyone who has aspirations for creating art that involves any changes to artwork that another has created, that it behoves them to do so in a respectful manner. I believe that it is even more important when that involves representations of individuals, living or dead. I know that there are some areas that artists wouldn’t touch with a barge pole when it comes to image manipulation, so why not just be consistent.