Faking it

Nick Smurthwaite talks to four photographers about ways in which the digital revolution has affected them, personally as well as professionally

Unlike painting or music, photography has always had a hard time maintaining its artistic credentials. Most of us own a camera and many of us have taken pictures good enough to hang on the wall. What’s so special about a Snowdon portrait or a Fay Godwin landscape?

From the professional photographer’s point of view this is a bit like comparing your mum’s shepherd’s pie with some culinary masterpiece by Anton Mossiman. Both might well be delicious, but there is an aspirational gap the size of the Grand Canyon between them.

Now photographers are faced with an even bigger headache – digitisation. The concept of the photographer as a trained, honest and knowing eye is being undermined by the frequent and indiscriminate use of computer manipulation in press and advertising images.

Underachieving football managers are given turnip heads, the Queen gets a new hairdo, Bill Clinton goes the full monty, and John Prescott finds his pint of bitter replaced by a glass of champagne. Nothing is what it seems any more. There was a time when the camera never lied. Now it lies brazenly at every available photo opportunity.

How are the top commercial photographers coping with this radical new development?

It’s not all bad, of course. Ann McNeil, creative director of Photo ’98, sees it as “a natural evolution in work processes… just another set of tools open to photographers and visual artists”. Responsibly deployed, image manipulation software makes life a lot easier for those working in the advertising and design fields. Some startlingly surreal image that might have taken Man Ray a couple of days and five rolls of film to achieve can now be knocked up in half an hour with the wonders of Photoshop.

But is it art and does it matter? So long as you can satisfy the client’s needs – or dupe an unsuspecting public – who really cares how an image is arrived at? Isn’t the end result more important than arcane matters of professional ethics or artistic pride?


If an image needs manipulation that would signify to me that it’s not good enough in the first place, or you’ve made a mistake and you’re trying to put it right. There’s a moral aspect, too. While it’s OK to enhance images for artistic and design purposes, I don’t approve of the trend for distorting news photography.

Having said that, manipulation is very good for pictures that involve ideas. I produced a record cover for Madness where they were falling out of the sky, and I don’t suppose that could ever have been achieved without a computer. Another obvious application was a picture of Sinead O’Connor where three separate images were sandwiched together as one.

In the Oasis exhibition I put together last year, I was lucky enough to have Braco Sigal working with me, who is an expert at scanning and digitised printing. I like to see all this as a darkroom process – but without the chemicals.

Things are moving at such a pace in digital technology, I do sometimes find it hard to keep up. My brother lives in Japan and he sends me digitised pictures of his children via e-mail.


I like the fact that people very often can’t tell the difference between a picture that I’ve created using digital enhancement and one that’s for real. I hate it when a picture looks too obviously manipulated.

About 18 months ago I invested in my own system, which consists of a PC, a scanner and Photoshop software. I spent a few weeks getting the hang of it. My training as an engineer prevented me from becoming intimidated by new technology. I use the equipment mainly for changing colours and montaging things together.

You can get completely lost in digital photography because there are so many things you can do. You’ve got to keep a clear idea of what it is you want. You start to think in three dimensions. I’m always looking out for different elements that will go to make up the finished picture. I never used to think like that.

When you get used to working with it, you always feel you want to put a picture through the system if only to polish it up. It’s gratifying when you’ve got three crap images and you can make something good from them. It’s not that different from waiting for the picture to come up in the darkroom… you’ve still got to manipulate each individual element so you’re entirely sure how the finished thing will look.

I’m working on a book of pictures about an imaginary city – an amalgam of London, Paris, New York, Prague, Budapest, Athens and Zagreb. I didn’t want to rely on reportage techniques all the time, so I’ve used Photoshop quite a lot. I had a very definite idea about what images I wanted, and the software makes it a lot easier to achieve those aims.


I do a lot of work without the computer, but working in fashion and advertising, I’m always open to ideas. If you can achieve a better affect with the help of computer manipulation then

I’m all for it. I worked on the Tsar perfume campaign recently where manipulation was very useful. We had two shots and, with the help of the computer, we were able to match them up and arrive at exactly what was needed.

Computer manipulation can become a gimmick if it’s misused. There is a risk that everything comes out looking the same – flawless, homogenised. I can usually tell when a shot has been manipulated. There was one recently in one of the Sunday supplements of a woman standing in front of her villa in Tuscany. It was obvious to me that they’d combined two separate shots. But there was no harm done.

Every busy photographer is using computers either directly or indirectly now. I have a system at home, but mostly I work with someone who knows more than I do. I wouldn’t be good enough to do it on my own. I’d like to learn more about it, but it’s almost a full-time job. There is no question that it makes life easier provided you know what you’re doing.


It gives me more satisfaction, as a photographer, to produce a finished effect in-camera rather than resort to computer manipulation, but I realise there is no creative logic in that.

At the end of the day, though, most of my clients – designers and art directors – don’t give a hoot whether the finished picture has been manipulated or not.

Ad agencies don’t look for style so much as content and ideas. Design companies look for style which then dictates the content.

Corporate photography can be very boring and static, people pointing at dials and so on, so I try to bring a bit of immediacy and reportage to it, showing people on the move.

Obviously, you can’t work in the commercial field and not use computer manipulation sometimes. But I’d rather pay somebody who knows what they’re doing than embark on the massive learning curve required to do it myself. I simply couldn’t afford the time it would take to become as good as the experts I employ. You have to be doing it constantly. I’m not a Luddite, but I prefer to use someone who knows all the wrinkles.

I produced a shot for a computer company showing a sandcastle on a beach being partially destroyed by waves. There was no way I could realise that by natural means, so we had to take a number of shots and build up the image with the aid of a computer. They were very pleased with the result.

The job that has given me most satisfaction recently involved no computer manipulation at all. It is a range of postage stamps celebrating the Notting Hill Carnival in London, which will be released in August. It’s a marvellous subject, of course, and I think I was able to capture the colour and vibrancy of the event by using my own form of manipulation.

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