The Pen is Mightier Than Photoshop

Last year I was teaching a class of teenagers on how to read a photograph before we took a trip to the cities photography festival. Of course I had some classic images in my presentation to analyse. On showing the class  Ansel Adams “Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico”, I was met with the barrage of shouts that the image must be photoshopped. Explaining the age of the picture and quizzing them on the technology and cameras that existed in the 1940’s they came to the acceptance that the image was not photoshopped.

moonrise over hernandez by Ansel Adams

Moonrise Over Hernandez by Ansel Adams

What really struck me was how cynical the younger generation are about photography. We worry about the over editing of images and how these edited views of reality are giving the young the wrong impressions of what real people look like. Yet, taking my class as a straw poll, the younger generation perceive a good picture as being photoshopped and faked, thereby liking the image while at the same time knowing what they see is not real.

Before the digital age it was not unknown for images to be faked and the term used for images in glossy magazines was not photoshopped but airbrushing. The analogue age is romanticised as being a pure age where the image told the truth. The fact is that the images of the past could lie just as much as the pictures of the present.


Hippolyte Bayard – Drowned man 1840

One of the easiest ways to manipulate doesn’t need  to involve the darkroom or Photoshop. It is as easy as writing a misleading description on an image.

One of the earliest faked images was taken by Hippolyte Bayard. Bayard was a French photographer who missed being the creator of photography by mere months. It is said that he was dissuaded in sharing his photographic invention to the French Academy of Sciences by Francois Arago, who happened to be a friend of Louis Daguerre. Daguerre went on to publish his own photographic invention the Daguerreotype. In response to the injustice  he felt Bayard went and took a self-portrait of himself using his photographic process. The staged photograph was named the drowned man. In the picture he pretends to have committed suicide on the back of the photo he wrote.

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”

Samantha Ovens

Photograph: Tom Merton/Getty Images/OJO Images RF
Samantha Ovens: not fantasising about sex with old, obese men, apparently.

The miss captioning of photographs is an easy way to misrepresent the reality of the situation. The caption of the photograph is there to give you context to what you are seeing. Today we see this all the time and possibly don’t realise it. Stock images are bought and used for multiple purposes. That is why a stock image looks so generic. It is an image where we add context to reinforce an article or to accompany the text.
In The Guardian newspaper shortcuts blog, they responded to their own captioning problem. The photo in question was of Samantha Ovens who is sat on a bed in pyjamas with a pained face holding her hand to her head. The image could be used for all sorts of purposes, perhaps a pain medication marketing campaign or maybe an article about stress and sleep disorders. It was in fact shot for a “Cold and Illness” stock shoot and was then used for an agony aunt column with the title “I fantasise about group sex with old obese men”. Although Samantha has said it hasn’t affected her work.
Unlike Avril Norlan whose face was used for an advertising campaign to raise awareness of the rights of people who are HIV +. The poster had the head and torso of Avril and in Large letters I am HIV positive +” and “I Have Rights”.

iampositiveThe image was taken as part of a fashion shot and then added to Getty Stock library by the photographer. In reality Nolan doesn’t have HIV. Nolan believes and we could agree rightly that she has been wrongly depicted. This has caused some awkward conversations in her life with friends family and potential romantic partners. This shows how easy it can be to add a caption to an image and for the reality of the image to change quickly.


Photograph by K.L.Market

On the internet and in new media, viral images are shared and liked all the time with little understanding that what a person is liking or sharing is possibly not wholly true. There were many viral photoshopped images when Hurricane Sandy hit America. One of those that went viral was a picture captioned;

Soldiers of the 3rd Inf Reg continue to stand guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, despite the worsening weather conditions surrounding Hurricane Sandy. The tomb has been guarded continuously since 1948.”

The image went viral on social media and in turn was picked up by 24 hour news networks. The image although not photoshopped, is not of soldiers on guard during Hurricane Sandy. It was taken a month previously by photographer K.L.Market in bad weather conditions. Although the caption does not say that these are the guards on duty during Hurricane Sandy pre storm, it is implied.

We can recognise more easily, even though we have better technology, manipulated images. We have become so cynical about an image being fake even those that are not get called out. We don’t however question captions that go along with images even though they give context for us to understand and view the image.


Matthew Albanese Mountain Landscape. Amazing picture of a field capturing the red rock mountains in the background.

Real or Fake?

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2 thoughts on “The Pen is Mightier Than Photoshop

  1. I think there is a place for both Photoshopped and non-Photoshopped photos…depends on what the image is being used for…having said that as a consumer/reader I prefer real images when it comes to Marketing, along with words that are accurate to the photo. When I process my photos I do as little as possible to them but that is the stage I’m at right now…

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