Mike Busselle - confesses to a series of photographic crimes against reality!
I've Been Cheating! Cheat - Œ To deceive, to defraud, to trick, to swindle - according to my dictionary. Well I'm not sure about defraud or swindle but on the other two counts I am a cheat. I've been taking photographs for more than fifty years and a fair number of the pictures I've taken in that time have involved cheating. I've made people look younger and more attractive than they really are as well as older and more characterful, I've made things look both bigger and smaller as well as taller and shorter, I've made colours much richer than in life, skies more brooding, distances greater and things appear much closer than they were - my deceits have known few limits.
Most of this cheating has been simply in the interests of making a picture more striking or dramatic but I must also confess to coming close to swindling and defrauding on occasions. I've used my 17mm wide-angle lens, for instance, to make rooms look much more spacious than they were and modest swimming pools appear of Olympic proportions. I've chosen viewpoints and framed my pictures to make places look idyllically located instead of on the edge of a busy road or next to a builder's yard and I've shot crowded beaches so they looked like desert islands. I've had twinges of conscience while doing these things but my clients have demanded it and the ability to make things look better than they are is considered part and parcel of a professional photographer's skill.
Come on, you don't honestly believe that your ready-prepared, supermarket chicken biriyani is really going to look the way it does on the packet after you¹ve taken it from the microwave, do you? Or that Kate Moss, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Scarlett Johannsen etc. actually look that good in the flesh - it takes an army of hairdressers, make-up artists, stylists and Mario Testino to achieve that particular type of deception.
Let's be honest, lots of photographs involve a degree of deception, especially those taken by professionals, and yet in all my years of shooting pictures I don't recall being called a cheat until quite recently. It started when I became aware of the potential that Photoshop offered me as a way of controlling the quality of my images. Until then I'd been obliged to accept that, when shooting in colour, I was limited to the effects which could be achieved using filters and exposure - before PS, once you¹d pressed the button on transparency film there was little more that could be done to alter the image.
I remember being invited by one of the big photo libraries many years ago to witness a demonstration of their new, massively expensive, digital set up. I watched in awe as an operator manipulated the characteristic curves of an image adding subtle changes to it's colour and tonal scale - a shade more red in the highlights, a touch more contrast in the greens and making the greys a really pure neutral. It seemed like magic to me and for the first time I could see a way of not having to accept the arbitrary and, often unsatisfactory, rendition that transparency film imposed on my pictures and how I could take control over the the final result in ways which had not been previously possible.
A little later on the operator showed how he could remove a rather ugly high-rise building from the skyline of an urban landscape. But I agree there's a difference between enhancement of quality, which my photo library rather charmingly describes as digital fulfilment, and a fundamental, structural alteration of the image.
But even here I feel it can be justified on occasions. I think that photographs are taken to fulfil two main needs, one is information and the other decoration. In the case of the former, anything which calculatingly deceives is very questionable but with the latter I can see no reason for objections other than aesthetic ones. With a picture of, say, an idyllic beach used in a generic way as an illustration in a travel brochure I seen no reason why an intrusive building should not be removed from a headland but every reason why it shouldn't if were being used to illustrate that specific beach.
The accusations of cheating I've received have arisen as the result of some images I¹ve made recently where I've replaced the sky on one photograph with that from another because I felt it would be improved and given greater impact. Unlike the removal of a building from an urban landscape I¹ve not altered the image in any significant way other than by including a cloud formation which was not present at the time the exposure was made, although it could well have been and probably has at some point in the past million years or so.
I think that a certain number of the accusations of cheating are triggered by a belief that it¹s an easy option and not as difficult as shooting it all in real time. I disagree. I've taken numerous pictures where sky, light and landscape have all come together in a single wonderful moment and nine times out of ten it's down to sheer good luck - being at the right place at the right time. On the other time out of ten it's usually down to patience, either waiting at a location or returning to it to get the shot.
Either way, patience or good luck, it requires little skill other than that of pressing the button at the right moment. Adding a sky, on the other hand, does require a modicum of skill and the ability to visualise and select images where it will work. It's by no means a push over. For every instance where a composite of this type is successful there are many where it fails - and the individual images have to be pretty good in the first place for the technique to stand any chance of working at all or to justify the time and effort involved in applying it.
Yes, it has to be said - I've been cheating and I feel no shame.