The following observations come from reading the section “The Real and the Digital” in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75.
The article discusses briefly the relationship between “the real” and photography, in the context of the technological advances that have made the manipulation of images ubiquitous in many of today’s photographic practices. One of the points made is that while we have always been conscious that photographic images could be manipulated or altered in a deceitful way, we have also “…been prepared to believe them to be evidential and more “real” than other kinds of images” (idem, p 74), and that it was “…possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography” (idem, p 74). In other words, the perception of authenticity in a photograph is perhaps more influenced by our understanding of the parameters of each type of photographic practice, than by the way its contents are presented or arranged. As an example, the ethical requirements of photojournalism would perhaps incline more people to believe that a press photograph is a more authentic representation of reality than the output of a conceptual artist using just photography as a medium. The article goes on to argue that “Any radical transformation in this [photographic practice] structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph” as a medium to represent the real (idem p. 74), a situation that was underpinned by recent developments in photography leading to the “…merging and lack of definition between photographic genres” (idem p. 75).
In looking at the arguments made by Wells, one has to wonder to what extent the technological advances are actually driving the changes to photographic practices that she mentions in her article. For instance, Wells quotes Campany to make the point that the definition of photography is less dependent on “…what it is technologically than what it is culturally” (idem p 75), but in the age of social media, how can we separate culture from technology? It is difficult to argue that the smart phone, which is the device most commonly used these days to produce photographs, doesn’t determine at the same time how we choose to consume, as a society, photographic images (eg via image sharing applications). This, in turn, is likely to have had a profound impact on our perception of the structure of photographic practices, as the same image repositories (eg Flickr, Facebook, etc) are likely to be used by diverse practitioners (photojournalists, artists, documentarians) to share their images, thus adding to the lack of definition alluded by Wells in the article.
At the same time, and while it is undeniable that image manipulation has always existed, it is also clear that the proliferation of image sharing apps in recent times, all of which offer image editing facilities, have not only made it trivial to alter photographs, but (by means of their social acceptance as the prime way of consuming images) have also contributed to the establishment of aesthetic codes that validate such manipulations. This may be initially circumscribed to a limited subset of photographic practices (eg vernacular photography, art photography), but the blurring of the corners between practices fostered by the sharing of technological platforms should have contributed, at least to an extent, to create an expectation of manipulation for most photographs.
A point can also be made more directly about the speed and ease with which image manipulation can be achieved in modern times. Without even seeking to compare the quality of output in either cases, it should be clear for most practitioners that software manipulation is significantly faster, and generally more consistently reproducible, than even the simplest of analogue photographic manipulations. This in itself is likely to have contributed to greater expectations, by the viewer, of photographic images departing more and more from reality; under the perception that the ease with which they could be manipulated creates ever-increasing temptation for undertaking seemingly innocent alterations. This seems to have been confirmed, at least anecdotally, by the numerous cases of press photographs being disqualified from industry-run contests in recent years (see for instance here and here). In this case, one could argue again that the technological advances have somewhat contributed to the altering of perceived social and cultural structures within certain photographic practices (eg photojournalism in this case).