Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Ethics of Photoediting Revisited

Here is a photo from the early 1920s. It has several obvious defects. If you want a better view of the defects, you will need to click on the image. This image was made from a negative and inverted by using Adobe Photoshop. Here is a copy of the original negative.

Do we want the original photo, fingerprints and all? What about the light leak at the bottom of the image? Should that stay or not. The issue is that anytime you alter an original photograph, even to "improve" the quality, you are essentially re-writing history. If you had a painting made by one of your ancestors would you feel justified in touching up the painting to suit your present tastes and values?

There is no clear cut answer to the question. So where do you draw the line? Here is version one of the photo with some "improvements."

The changes may not be too apparent unless you enlarge the photo by clicking on it. I removed most of the fingerprints and defects in the sky portion. I think very few people would be bothered by these relatively minor changes. But what if I exercise some "artistic" liberty and change the photo even further. Here is another copy:

All sorts of good arguments could be made that this image is also faithful to the original and well within the bounds of ethical alteration. But aren't I getting a little bit too close to changing the original photo in an unacceptable manner? But you say, as long as you preserve the original what difference does it make, my relatives will be a lot happier with the changes. But you are making that judgment, not your relatives or anyone else. What if your relatives would actually prefer the unaltered version?

Well, I come this far. What if I make a few other minor changes. For example, the woman on the left is really not supposed to be there. She was the former wife of the man in the white shirt who no one in the family liked. If I show this picture to my relatives, they will have a fit.  (I am making all this up, I have no idea as to the identity of the people in the photo). But you can see the point. Here is my next altered photo:

What would stop me from taking out all of the people? Nothing really except a little bit longer time with Photoshop. Now before you get all huffy, how about knowing that photographers made these types of changes all the time, long before Photoshop was a gleam in Adobe's eye. How do I know? I have a huge collection of early 1900s and late 1800s photo negatives. I find a very high percentage of them were altered in the dark room. This included dodging, burning, and masking the negatives and adding in different details from another photo. 

Before you take a class in photo manipulation and start "improving" on old photos, maybe you should take some time to think through exactly where you stand on destructive editing. Up until my last edit, there are extremely good arguments for improving the damaged and poorly maintained old negative, but maybe you will decide that the original, no matter how "bad" it is, best conveys the message intended by this photographer from the past. 


  1. My stand is, that I want to have the photograph look as much as it did when it was first printed. That means that the subject should remain untouched, but anything that affected the print itself by aging, such as fading and discoloring, or by handling, such as scratches and dust, can be adjusted. That means NO recomposing, cropping or removing of subjects or elements.

    Thanks James, I always enjoy your blog posts, and Tech Tips.

  2. Interesting, but IMNSHO, sure smacks of situational ethics. So ..... I can doctor an original document if I 'think' it is making it clearer?

    People all over scream that it is not proper to accept even a transcription of a document. But just because we can change a photo it is ok to do so?

    To me, if you want to change the original that you have, then you can do that in some photo album somewhere, not in any quality genealogy work.

    Doctored is doctored. Original is original.


  3. @Scott Phillips As I said, I'm against altering subjects in, or elements of the photograph itself, but if you're able to clarify something, what is stopping you? I can mess with contrast, saturation and hue on my monitor, does that mean I mess with the integrity of the websites I'm looking at? In the end, you're working with derivatives, not originals.

    Anyway, images on can be enhanced for clarification, but it doesn't mean the information on the image changes, it just means the way you could interpret that information changes.