As long as there has been the ability to record images by means of exposing photo-sensitive materials to light, there has has also existed the ability to manipulate that recorded image. It seems that the enhanced ability to change the original capture through the application of digital software has caused the age-old debate over what is and is not proper manipulation to rage even stronger.
I would suggest that there should not be any debate at all. Manipulation of photographic images, whether film or digital in origin, and whether by cropping, spotting, dodging/burning, or cloning, is never ethical in the context of photojournalism or any other context where the image is either explicitly or implicitly represented to the viewer as a faithful depiction of a scene. All photographs used in the context of journalism must represent faithful depictions if we are to maintain trust in those who would provide to us scenes of real life as it unfolds. Other photographs become subject to the "no manipulation" rule when they are explicitly offered as a faithful representation of a scene. In all other cases, the viewer is not entitled to hold the belief that a photographic image is a faithful depiction of the scene captured. Jeff Schewe stated it quite well in his web article appearing in the April 3, 2005 edition of PhotoshopNews entitled "Kate doesn’t like Photoshop – Digital Ethics," wherein he says, "So, how are people expected to judge photographs today? It generally boils down to the context in which the photograph is presented. As a long time advertising photographer I can tell you that in the ad biz, pretty much anything goes. In fine art photography, the only rule is to break all rules." I agree.
I have had the privilege of discussing the topic in some detail with Stephen Johnson (http://www.sjphoto.com/), a professional photographer whom I admire for both his skills as a photographer and printer, and his ability to communicate his vast knowledge of the artistic and technical photographic process to others. He also happens to be a great individual as well. For anyone really interested in reading about photography as an art and as a technical enterprise, I would highly recommend his book entitled "Stephen Johnson On Digital Photography." Rather than risk misrepresenting Steve's position on the subject, I will quote from a portion of his chapter entitled "Photography and Truth-Imaging Ethics in the Digital Age" (page 256): "If you take a photograph so far that it bears little resemblance to the original scene, then I think you cross over that line and are not merely finishing the photograph, but you are into a clearly more interpretive mode. When you change the photograph this dramatically, you have manipulated the image, which is perfectly legitimate to do if the image doesn't pretend to be real." I agree, and I would suggest that fine art photographers are free to cross that line on a regular basis in order to pursue their vision of reality, rather than the approximation that comes from using an imperfect instrument like a camera.
What people tend to confuse in this debate is the difference between adopted ethical standards on the one hand and personal beliefs on the other hand. While many photographers would hold the personal belief that nothing should be deleted from the boundaries of the captured image, such as a cigarette butt on the sidewalk, or a telephone line in the background, that doesn't make the removal of such objects unethical, absent an implicit or explicit obligation to make certain that the scene is a faithful representation. In the case of photojournalism, it would always be unethical to clone such objects out of the scene, even if they have no direct relevance to the import of the scene. At least one photojournalist was fired because he removed a pair of legs that appeared behind a banner hanging on an outfield fence. His reasoning was that the legs were distracting and had nothing to do with the message of the image. It doesn't matter how trivial in the context of photojournalism.
When it comes to fine art photography, ethical standards are not even relevant. We can debate personal beliefs and the soundness of those beliefs as a cohesive set of rules governing one's photographic conduct until the end of time, but there is nothing unethical about a fine art photographer using the initial capture of the image as simply a starting point. Fine art is fine art, whether the medium is paint or pencil or clay or pixels. If you are not a photojournalist, but instead are drawn to photography by your desire to create your version of "art", then you have every right to make choices as to how best to convey your vision.
Pedro Meyer, another well-known photographer and outspoken supporter of photographic manipulation, has written many editorials on the subject. On the zonezero website (http://www.zonezero.com/) in April 1997, he wrote an article entitled "Who has Manipulated What and When?" In that article, he concludes his discussion about digital manipulation with the following statements: "I find the idea of placing a symbol next to a picture to indicate that it's been manipulated to be a simplistic solution to a complex issue-namely who has manipulated what and when? I suggest, on the other hand, that the more people are aware that photos have long been manipulated and still are-whether they're digital or not-the better we'll be." Our focus, in the context of photojournalism and photorealism, should be on the ethics of the photographer and not on the tools available to that photographer.
It is absurd to claim that any photographic image is devoid of any manipulation. Every decision made at the time of capture represents a manipulation that carries with it the possibility of creating a "misrepresentation" of the original scene. What is intentionally deleted from within the boundaries of the image, either through the choice of camera format, orientation of the camera, or lens length, represents a conscious choice that manipulates the scene. The exposure settings determine whether the final image is a silhouette of shapes or deletes information within blown out highlights, deemed more or less important by the photographer, and necessarily acknowledge the limitations of the camera over the ability of the human eye to absorb a much greater range of lighting of a single scene. For those who shoot jpeg files instead of raw, the settings for sharpness, saturation, and contrast made in the camera, either by default (i.e., the camera manufacturer's view of "correct") or by choice, represent manipulations.
The bottom line is that fine art photographers, and hobbyists, are free to create final images that may barely, if at all, look anything like the original scene. Just as a painter picks from the scene in front of him or her those elements that further the painter's vision, a photographic artist, as opposed to a photojournalist, is also free to clone to his or her heart's content and, heaven forbid, even arrange elements within the physical scene to aid in the creation of the final image. The original capture is merely the beginning canvas.
Next week: My Personal Experiences with Photography Workshops