What is a Photograph?

To answer this question we could turn to a dictionary definition, we could look at Wikipedia or we could have a stab at coming up with something ourselves. Unfortunately, none of these can help us come up with a conclusive answer. However, let’s give all three a go.

The dictionary tells me that a photograph when used as a noun is, “a picture made using a camera, in which an image is focused on to light-sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by chemical treatment, or stored digitally.” Wikipedia is not in any way a recognised academic research destination, but it is the one that most people use and therefore worth considering here. A photograph according to Wiki is, “an image created by light falling on a photosensitive surface, usually photographic film or an electronic image sensor. It also give us the etymology of the word, “The word photograph was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek φῶς (phos), meaning “light,” and γραφή (graphê), meaning “drawing, writing,” together meaning “drawing with light” before continuing to suggest a history of the photograph and various other interesting facts.

That’s the dictionary and Wiki covered, so what have we learnt? Well, I think it is clear that the key element in what constitutes a photograph is the capturing of light. There is no discussion in these definitions of specific types of camera, subject matter or process of capture.

However, before we continue with that thought process I would like to suggest a word that is commonly used today by photographers, but which no longer means what it once did. That word is ‘video’. Those of a certain age and whom grew up with the birth of the video will understand a video as being a chunky black plastic box filled with video tape on two spools that bought films to homes on demand via an even larger box called a video player. Video bought about a revolution in home entertainment and visual communication. However, its bulky nature and reliance on analogue tape saw its technology replaced with the disc format as a DVD, Blue Ray and Laser Disc. The video became old school and reminiscent of the past. Today, the growth of in-demand streaming and downloading has seen the DVD become as redundant as the video cassette and yet the word ‘video’ has been re-born to describe moving image content that has no connection with the original format.

Today, photographers are happy to describe the films they make as videos although they have no connection with the previous technology. Our definition of the word has evolved. Let’s consider that as we continue to think about what our definition of a ‘photograph’ is today.

I have previously spoken about the definition of the photograph with relation to post-production manipulation of the original photographic capture. I have suggested that through such manipulation the created artefact is no longer a photograph, as the manipulator will have distorted reality to create an illustrative representation of what was seen or what they wished to have seen. Such manipulation plays with the truth and can be seen as a sliding scale of manipulation from enhancement at one end to creation at the other. I stand by this belief and my previous thoughts and comments. I have no issue with such creative practice as long as the digital artist creating the work is aware and honest with the viewer concerning their intention and level of involvement in distorting reality.

However, in a recent conversation with photographer Jonas Bendiksen concerning his body of work The Book of Veles (https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2022/12/21/podcast-a-photographic-life-episode-christmas-special/) I began to consider the impact Artificial Intelligence and the use of ‘stable diffusion’ is having on the creation of what many may consider to be a photograph in the future.

The idea that AI is creating images from stored images is an interesting discussion point from many different perspectives. I don’t want to go into them all here, but I do think it is worth considering the impact it may have on the evolution of the definition of what we consider to be a photograph. Perhaps this is already happening with the digital artists previously mentioned. However, I think this discussion is more nuanced than purely addressing manipulation. Proof of this has come with the amount of digital artists speaking out against the use of AI to create digital images similar to the work they are creating through an algorithm rather than a human mind and hand. The issue they say is that you cannot copyright a ‘style’, something an algorithm finds easy to replicate. Perhaps this demonstrates an issue with digital image making that is process driven, formulaic and bland, copying what exists, rather than creating something new. I will leave you to consider that thought.

In its most basic form an AI image is a collage, an image made up of constituent parts. It is not a photograph as we understand it today. It is not a single capture of a moment, person or place. That is clear. However, it is created in the back lit world of the LED screen and in that sense could be described as being dependent on light in its creation, similar to the pure digital photographic image captured by a camera, but seen on a LED screen. Light does not only come from the sun.

Many people today are happy to accept a heavily manipulated photographic image as a photograph. Perhaps, not the purist, or myself, sometimes, but the majority. The digital image is created by capturing light as the definitions tell us, there is no mention concerning the level of manipulation in those definitions, but lets not get bogged down in semantics. Let’s try and think about this as an evolution of language and practice.

There are many photographers today happy to describe themselves as such who are engaging with the medium, whilst embracing the potential of associated technologies as part of their practice. Using drones, DSLRS and Mirrorless cameras to make moving image, recording sound, applying post-production techniques, designing their own books, building websites, writing text, giving online talks, controlling their own social media, using smartphones to make images and of course to make traditional photographic stills. Are they correct in describing themselves as photographers? Should they reconsider the description they give themselves? Has the word photographer evolved?

I am not offering answers here, but thoughts and discussion points. Some of what I am saying is based on fact, some on my own reflections and analysis. This is a fluid situation.

What I hope we can agree upon is that the definition of the photograph is open to reinterpretation based upon technological development. The example of the word ‘video’ shows us how a visual artefact can evolve as technology does. There is no contradiction in evolving our understanding of what constitutes a photograph. The issue of course is personal. I know this because I was one of the people who had a problem with the use of the word ‘video’ when not connected with the technology of the past. Video created on digital devices should be called ‘moving image’ I wrote, it cannot be seen as a video I believed. I may have been right, but that doesn’t matter, the general consensus made my beliefs irrelevant.

I still believe that there is a difference between filmmaking and moving image, but that is a different conversation, however while we are speaking of filmmaking, there again we can see the use of the word ‘film’ evolve to describe both movies made on film and now through digital capture. The evolvement of terms used to describe image making is not hard to find.

The truth is that it didn’t matter what I thought about the use of the word ‘video’, technology and the use of the word to describe every piece of content added to Youtube confirmed the new understanding of that word. I think the same may well be the case for the ‘photograph’. You, me or others within the photo community may baulk at the use of the word ‘photograph’ to describe a manipulated image, but this may not matter. If it is generally adopted or perhaps hi-jacked to describe an AI created image we will have little or no say in the matter. I am open to that are you?

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

1 comment

  1. Excellent and easily understandable article. I have long contended we must change our philosophy and nomenclature concerning a photograph.

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