I did. The image was from a recent show of 70s NYC street photographs by Eugene photographer Harry Bonham Houchins. I've never met him and don't know his work but when I saw that image on the announcement card I drove straight over to Emerald Art Center to check it out. We don't get many street photography shows in Eugene, and that photo was a dandy. I couldn't figure it out. Were they twins, related? I wanted to see more.
Turns out the image was a digital composite. It was hung next to several other street shots which appeared to be straight photos, none of which were as good as the one above, without any particular note about which were composite and which weren't. Groan.
OK. I'm not going to get into the whole question of how much manipulation is too much. I know photographs are not reality, and that virtually all of them are manipulated in some way. I'm not a purist, and in fact I've seen purely manufactured images that are pretty darned entertaining, including a growing branch of street photography which relies on digitally recombined images to create interesting work. Pelle Casse, Peter Funch, Viktor Szemzo, and Manuel Vasquez are just a few. Their photos are great so long as you understand that their methods are closer to Uelsmann than Cartier-Bresson.
That's fine. But when a purely digital fantasy attempts to pass unnoticed amid a group of relatively unmanipulated images --with no supporting explanation-- I have a problem. Maybe I am just resentful because I was fooled by the Houchins image, but I think such blurring threatens the essence of street photography. In my heart of hearts I feel the core of street photography is looking at reality and attempting to capture it. Combining forms on a computer is something different. Valid, but separate.
I don't think I'm alone in this belief. Just look at the recent flap over Stepan Rudik. When photos mess with the "truth" --however you want to define that-- it ruffles feathers.
I wish I could change my outlook but I can't. I've thought hard about why that is. Digital mixing doesn't bother me in other art forms. I like Radiohead or Flying Lotus as much as the next guy. I don't really care how a musician gets a certain sound, or if a heavily digitized song is right next to a straight recording on a CD. If I watch a movie, I don't care which scenes are computer generated and which aren't. It's all entertainment. I don't care which pages of a novel are written longhand and which on a word processor. But when it comes to photography, I care. Am I being hypocritical, or does photography deserve special consideration?
As a counter example consider the following photo.
This was on Broadway in downtown Portland. The form of the cigarette is what first drew me in. Looking closer I couldn't tell what he was putting in his sock. I just knew it looked a bit odd and so my intuition told me to get a few shots. On the contact sheet the surrounding frames fall flat. It's a guy bending over adjusting his shoe, nothing more. In this one frame, however, the shot comes together. For a fraction of a second his leg and foot are exactly misaligned and it appears that he's removing his entire foot. It's the type of street photo that recharges me, at once perfectly mundane and bizarre.
In the contemporary photo world, the question then becomes, So What? Such a shot would be easy to create in Photoshop. You could take any photo of a guy bending over, hire a model even, and then tweak the sock and shoe to give the same effect. Most nonphotographers —and I include here most of the fine art world— wouldn't care one way or another how I got the photo. They would probably assume it was digitally altered, but wouldn't spend much time worrying about it. After all, when you get your MFA you learn that all images are manipulated, that no photo shows "reality". Everyone knows truth in photography is just a matter of degree. Right?
Is that really what it's come to? If it is, then why go to all the trouble of roaming the streets? Why not make the same photos in the comfort of an office sitting in a recliner?
I'll tell you why. First of all, because truth is stranger than fiction. Although you could make the shoe photo in Photoshop, no one would. No one would dream it up, and if even if they did they would dismiss the idea right away as not looking believable. It looks too strange to be true, when actually it's too strange to be fiction.
Reality is hard to pin down. I think this is why when "street photographers" sitting at home on their computers create what they think are believable fictions, they often have the whiff of unreality. Their photographs are close to credible yet inevitably wind up being incredible, especially in series. Maybe the Houchins photo had a whiff of unreality to it which, ironically, may have been what first drew me in.
The second, more important reason, to roam the streets is that it's life affirming! It's a challenge unlike any other. It combines aspects of meditation, observing, daring, and wondering about the world that cannot be simulated by looking at a monitor.
Viewed from this perspective, photography is as much about process as product. It's about searching, being mindful, living with integrity, all of it. It's a bit like eating. Yes, in theory you could gain all of your nutritional needs through a combination of vitamin pills, raw carbs, and maybe plasma injection. Maybe some folks do. But such an outlook is totally result-driven, and ignores the fact that good food is beautiful.
I'm probably on the wrong side of history here. The trend is toward conceptual, result-driven art. In 20 years straight street photography will be even more marginalized than it is now. Whatever. I'll still be out there doing it.