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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Revisiting the ethics of photo manipulation or "restoration" Part Three

 Unknown Photograph from the Margaret Godfrey Jarvis Overson Photographic CollectionAs
In this segment of the series on photo manipulation or restoration, I would like to address the issue of the use of the term "ethics," I mentioned in the title. A question was asked last night at the Brigham Young University Family History Library about altering a recent photograph taken of a grave marker. In this case, the photo originated as a digitized image. Because of this question, I realized that I needed to be more specific in the application of the concepts that I have been discussing.

My concerns deal primarily with historic photographs on paper or in negatives. The issues involve the process of digitizing a paper or physical photograph and then altering the photograph to conform with present sensibilities. When I say "physical photograph" I'm referring to the even older processes of Tintypes and Daguerreotypes and the subsequent paper photographs. These photographs are historical artifacts. They exist in one place at one time. If they are lost, there is no way to replace the image. This contrasts with the ephemeral nature of the digital image which can exist in multiple copies, in multiple locations at once. Although there are preservation issues in both instances.

How does the concern for preservation become an "ethical" issue? The word "ethics" is a very slippery term. It has multiple layers of meaning. Ethics is sometimes defined in terms of a moral value system. For many years, as a practicing attorney I was governed by the Arizona Bar Association Rules of Professional Conduct. These rules have been adopted by the Arizona Supreme Court and are binding on all practicing attorneys. Many of the Rules of Professional Conduct imposed on attorneys have little or nothing to do with an abstract concept of "morality."  Of course, I am in no way suggesting that the issues involved in the preservation of historical artifacts are primarily motivated by a sense of morality. However, there are implications regarding honesty, a moral issue, when we represent an image to be factual when it is actuality highly modified.  Likewise, the issues I'm raising about altering historical photographs are not necessarily moral issues, they are however serious issues as to what is considered good versus bad behavior from the standpoint of historical preservation, just as in the law the Rules of Professional Conduct deal with practical as well as moral issues.

Permit me to illustrate some of the issues involved with a hypothetical's situation. Let's suppose that your car was involved in a rather extensive accident. You decide to repair the automobile as cheaply as possible. Your repairs consist primarily of filling in the damaged portions with a substance referred to as "Bondo" rather than spend the money to replace the expensive parts. Shortly after the accident, you decide to sell the car and you fail to notify the purchaser about the accident or the repairs made. Do you feel that you have an ethical responsibility to disclose an accident to your car when you sell it to a new buyer? Why or why not?

The car in the illustration is in reality no different than an historical artifact. In fact, minor repairs using Bondo are done every day throughout the country. There is nothing unethical about using the product. Likewise, there is nothing per se unethical about using Photoshop to retouch photos. The ethics of the matter come into play when the program or the Bondo are used to change an existing condition that should be disclosed to a potential purchaser or, in the case of a photograph, a potential viewer. Further, in the case of a photograph, is it really sufficient to merely notify viewers that the photograph may have been altered from the original?

Let me give another example using a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that you find a journal written by an ancestor. Unfortunately, the ancestor is rather blunt and uses currently unacceptable language and makes references that are crude and offensive. As a matter of fact, this is exactly the case with some of the information that I have received from my own ancestors. Publication of the material would be very offensive today but was socially acceptable at the time. Should I clean up the material? Should I simply refuse to publish it? Should I edit the material and ignore any reference to the edited portions? Should I edit the material and disclose that the material has been edited? These are the same exact questions that should be asked when a photograph is altered. Rather than being socially unacceptable the image may simply be scratched or hard to view.

What about the situation where the photograph is otherwise viewable but needs to be "enhanced" to view more of the details? Where do you draw the line on the changes that would be made to a photograph without providing the original for comparison? What good does it do to tell me that a photograph is been altered if I have no way of viewing the original to see the extent of the alterations?

In my dealings with archives, I have been repeatedly advised to make no changes to the original photographs or documents. That is no changes not just avoiding major changes. In one case the repository was open to straightening the photos but no other changes were allowed. Why is this the case? I am reminded of my many visits to reconstructed historical locations. In fact, there is a cottage industry in many locations in the country fostered by historical reenactment and reconstruction. If I attend a reenactment of a Civil War battle, am I being led to believe that I am watching an actual Civil War battle? No. But unfortunately when a photograph is altered it may be practically impossible to tell that there has been any alteration from the original.

In summary, the topic of ethics with regards to the alteration of historical artifacts such as photographs, would be a system of rules to support the best possible preservation practices. I suggest that the ethics of photo preservation include the basic rule of making as few changes to the original as are absolutely necessary for preservation purposes.

This is an ongoing series and I expect that I will address the issue of the distinction between altering modern digitized photographs that originate in a digitized format and more historical photographs in the future.

Here are the previous posts in this series:

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