A funny thing happened during the transition from film to digital as photographers were forced to adapt to a new reality in viewer expectations.
In the old days, digital manipulation of images was hard. After you had the film processed, the image had to be printed, then scanned before you could start the digital transformation. Early scanners were cumbersome and expensive and it took a while before scanners got to the point they could scan negatives. It was only relatively late in the history of film that labs started delivering prints and digital images together.
As digital cameras got better, so did image manipulation software. At first only relatively simple color and blemish corrections were possible, today the amount of control you have over the final image is astonishing. You can build entirely new images literally out of nothing.
Whether the trend toward digital imaging via manipulation is good or bad is something for older photographers to argue over a beer, but now that the Photoshop genie is out of the bottle there’s no going back. Customers are now demanding artificial perfection and, if you want to stay in business, you have to keep up with the image manipulation arms race.
In a way that’s kind of sad. When you looked at a picture from earlier in the century, the image really was worth a thousand words. The image you saw was pretty much what things looked like. So, what’s an image worth today?
It will be tricky for historians of the future because of the natural tendency for people to equate photography with reality. But the images unearthed in the future may or may not represent the reality of the day. More often digital images are representing a stylized, artificial reality.
Perhaps those same historians looking at photos 100 years from now will be able to detect the changes to the image and restore the original. To future generations the changes we made to pictures of our lives are likely to be as interesting as the photos themselves. Why were we embarrassed about minor skin imperfections or a little bit of a double chin? Questions like those are likely to seem as silly to them as 1930s photos of men wearing a coat, tie and derby hat to the beach seem to us.
In spite of what I said about keeping up with the digital manipulation arms races, it’s also good to consider maintaining some fidelity to reality. Some day your photos may turn out to be the documentation of some small sliver of our current existence.