Photographic trickery is nearly as old as photography itself. Almost as soon as the pioneers of the craft managed to pin reality down, they were filled with the longing to fuck around with it.
Sometimes it was out of necessity. For example, long exposures meant you couldn't always catch objects in motion, so sometimes they had to be painted in. My favorite example of this is a 19th-century shot of a chuck-wagon cook flipping a pancake that was obviously added in post-production.
And I think it was in no way accidental that the emergence of retouching processes coincided with a huge surge in the popularity of portrait photography.
This has raised all sorts of ethical questions about how much a print can or should be messed with. There is no answer, and never will be, just lots of debate. As with other arts, there are no rules, only talent and taste or a lack thereof.
On the one hand, you have Henri Cartier-Bresson, an undisputed genius who didn't crop or otherwise heavily manipulate his photographs in printing. What showed up on the negative was what showed up in the print. And then you have Ansel Adams, another titan, who used the darkroom creatively to do things to his images that brought them to the finished state his vision demanded.
Who's right? Both of 'em.
But with the arrival of digital photography and Adobe Photoshop on the scene, post-production work has been made seamless and relatively simple to the point that you should never, never fully trust any photograph you didn't take and print yourself. For example, the latest version of Photoshop has a nifty tool called the "healing brush" that makes it possible to remove zits, wrinkles, sweat, and (if you're not careful) nostrils in four seconds flat.
But you have to draw the line somewhere, and designers and photographers are often called upon to manipulate reality in ways that are laughable, impossible, or even unethical.
For example, my employer is (like many institutions of higher learning) desperate to promote itself as a place that embraces diversity, particularly among the student body.
Before anybody angrily clicks the "Comment" button, let me say flatly that I support diversity initiatives. Although Arab-Americans aren't considered a separate ethnic minority unless it's a matter of racial profiling at airports, I doubt extremely I'd have been let into Harvard if at some point there hadn't been a push to add mixers to the gene pool.
Unfortunately, progress is slow. The university I work for catered during most of its history to the offspring of well-to-do Midwesterners, and didn't much care whether they were smart as long as they could afford the shockingly high tuition.
Needless to say, for century or more this place (like, I should add in all fairness, most American colleges of the time) was as white as an Olsen twin's pert little bottom. It's changing*, but we still have a long way to go.
That sad reality is a recurring thorn in the side of those who fashion the school's public image though visual design. I'm often called upon to photograph events hosted my department, and more than once I get a frantic reminder that "We need really diverse shots."
Recently I photographed a student picnic and, if I may so, it went well. We had extremely cooperative weather (an overcast sky, which lit everyone flatteringly) and the students were (shhh) already tipsy upon arrival, so they were inclined to cooperate with the poor sap with the camera.
The one criticism? I hadn't got enough shots of mixed groups. In frame after frame, white kids sat with white kids, African-Americans hugged only other African-Americans. You had an occasional wildcard Asian-American or Latino/a, but not enough to make the critic in question happy.
And why had I done this? Because I took pictures of the groups as they were, rather than shouting, "Okay, you - with the blonde hair - would you please step away? Thank you. Alright, I need a Black woman over on the left, and one more Asian for the front row. You're a Pacific Islander? Sorry, not close enough. But would you please go stand next to the Muslim woman in the headscarf for the next shot?"
A dear colleague of mine got similar complaint when she used a large, stock photo of a crowd as the background for a print piece. It had a mix of just about every age and race you can think of, and in proportions similar to those found in our student body, but it didn't appear diverse enough to one person in the approval loop. With time short and no other photo to be had, she had to resort to counting the number of "diverse" people in the print in order to prove it could be used.
And not long before that, another designer here had been slammed for using an all-white photograph on a reunion postcard for a class that had graduated 30-40 years ago. The person who complained didn't care that the entire university had, at the time, about four non-white students. The closest thing to a decent mixed photograph of the class in question? A shot of the final tableau of the senior show, featuring an entire chorus line in blackface. No, thank you.
It was then that we hit upon the idea of a new Photoshop tool that would be a boon to designers everywhere: the diversity brush.
The concept is simple. Just select the tool, click the appropriate box, and paint over the face in question. Poof! The girl from the Marshall Islands is now Norwegian. Click! Brad McGillicuddy of Ames, Iowa is now Rafael Sanchez-Montoya of Bogota, Colombia.
Simple, isn't it? No need to accept and admit the racist history of the school. No need to continue efforts to encourage students of all races to apply, attend, and (gasp) speak to each other. No need for the client to grapple with reality - just repaint reality to suit their needs.
Every designer I know would sell a kidney to get a copy.
You geniuses at Adobe, you're probably already two years ahead of us and at work on this feature for the next release. But just in case, please remember you read it here first. You can pay us in free software and fonts.
*I mean the school is changing. I'm not sure about the bottoms, separately or together, of the Olsen twins, and have no desire to learn more.