Smile, Say “Cheese” and Tweak

Apr 07, 2024
Source: Getty Images.

If you think the recent furore surrounding the previously released (edited) photograph of the Princess of Wales and her children is something new – or even remarkable – you could not be more wrong. As demonstrated by the experiences of celebrated Australian photographer, Frank Hurley (1885-1962, the controversy over photo-editing has been around for more than one hundred years.

Frank Hurley photographed Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition to Antarctica in 1911. His images of the Mawson expedition and the heroic stories they told are credited with introducing the world to Antarctica. Hurley also accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition which set out in 1914 and was marooned until August 1916. During Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition, Hurley was forced to abandon most of his photographic equipment on the ship Endurance when it became trapped in the ice.

The haunting images that survive speak not only to the unforgiving conditions and perilous nature of the expedition, but also to Hurley’s mastery of the camera lens. 1n 1917 when Hurley joined the Australian Imperial Forces as official photographer with the rank of honorary captain, he discovered a gulf between what he saw on the battlefield and what he could record on a single photograph. Unable to capture the full horror of war on a single photograph, Hurley began to merge images to create composite photographs that better communicated the reality of the war. However, the then official war historian, Charles Bean, objected to Hurley’s methods declaring them ‘nothing short of fake’. Ordered not to produce any more composite images, Hurley resigned.

“The Man Who Made History” is a 2004 documentary about Frank Hurley, the title referring to Hurley’s re-making of history by editing images, rather than simply recording it. While the artistry and power of Hurley’s images of World War I are incontestable, there is no doubt that they also demonstrate how the accuracy of historical records is uncertain.

That was then and this is now. Nowadays, the objective accuracy of all photographs is uncertain. Sure, the paparazzi go to great lengths to snare unflattering gotcha-moment photos of celebrities (or anyone whose image is marketable). However, most (if not all) posed photographs are edited in one way or another and often without the knowledge of permission of their subject/s. Numerous celebrities have complained about the way their images have been manipulated.

Needless to say, images of celebrities and models have been routinely edited to perpetuate unrealistic (unattainable) beauty standards in magazines, on social media and in advertising. Image manipulation has been blamed, at least in part for the body image issues common in adolescents. While photo-editing was once the domain of professional photographers, in 2024 it is ubiquitous. Image editing programs are readily available to anyone with a laptop, tablet or smart phone. Everyone can tweak the photos (or selfies) they take and doing so has never been easier.

Popular applications such as Instagram and Snapchat come with image altering filters and lenses. The latest model smartphones also come with powerful inbuilt AI (artificial Intelligence) photo-editing capabilities. So, who would be surprised to learn that the Princess of Wales tweaks all her family photos before they are released and why, considering the subtle nature of the edits, is anyone disturbed by it? I mean to say, photo-editing is now the norm and everyone does it.

Perhaps it is time we accepted that while photography is the end product of a technical process, it is now far less a science than it is an artform where the artist holds camera and has a suite of editing tools instead of a paintbrush and a palette of paints. No painting or photograph produced by a human has ever been entirely objective. Of course, reliance on AI (artificial intelligence) could change that, but let’s hope not.

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