(from a note by Eduard Steichen published in Issue 1 of Camera Work in 1903)
It is rather amusing, this tendency of the wise to regard a print which has been locally manipulated as irrational photography-this tendency which finds an esthetic tone of expression in the word faked.
A MANIPULATED print may not be a photograph. The personal intervention between the action of the light and the print itself may be a blemish on the purity of photography. But, whether this intervention consists merely of marking, shading and tinting in a direct print, or of stippling, painting and scratching on the negavtive, or of using glycerine, brush and mop on a print, faking has set in, and the results as always depend upon the photographer, upon his personality, his technical ability and his feeling.
BUT long before this stage of conscious manipulation has been begun, faking has already set in. In the very beginning, when the operator controls and regulates his time of exposure, when in the dark-room the developer is mixed for detail, breadth, flatness or contrast, faking has been resorted to. In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability.
I find this note surprisingly modern. It was written a century ago, and yet it reminds us that, from the very moment of exposure a photograph is fake, in the sense that the "reality" out there is manipulated by the photographer when he opens the shutter; and manipulated further yet in the subsequent steps that the film must go through to yeld and image.
Eduard Steichen's warning, of course, should also be seen in historical perspective: he was defending his own pictorialist style of photography, a style that employed many artifices to come to resemble paintings in visual appearance.
Despite this aspect of cicero pro domo sua, this observation on the necessary distance between the subject of photography and the resulting image is still very valid today.
Insistence on the dangers of digital manipulation of images may lead one to believe that an old fashioned chemical print from a silver gelatin film is somehow "truthful". But it is not; as Steichen implies, a picture is a very specific slice of reality taken from a certain angle in a unique fraction of a second. It is not the whole object, as our brain would lead us to believe.
Selection and manipulation happen at all stages; on that is normally hidden is image choice. After a studio session, a photographer may have hundreds of "good" images. After a trip, the images may be thousands.
In the process of picking the few that will be sold and used as illustration, another "faking" (as Steichen would say) takes place. It is very educational, for example to look at Cecil Beaton's contact prints, and wonder why he picked certain images for printing and not others.
The answer, obviously, is that he wanted to say a certain thing, and he selected the negatives that agreed with his idea.