Retouching Controversy Tarnishes a Photography Contest in an Unusual Genre

Retouching Controversy Tarnishes a Photography Contest in an Unusual Genre

We've become quite accustomed to unpermitted retouching damaging the reputation of photography competitions. In particular, press photography is especially susceptible to this. Strict rules on maintaining the sanctity of reality combined with environments in which outside factors frequently affect the ability to achieve clean and pleasing competition often beget a strong temptation for photographers to doctor images. However, such manipulation has now become an issue in a genre in which one normally does have the luxury of time and compositional choice: architecture.

Chicago is no stranger to striking architecture. I am by no means an expert in this genre of photography, but I find that whenever I visit the city, I frequently get drawn into simply wandering about for hours with my camera. One particularly attractive building is El Centro, one of the four branches of Northeastern Illinois University. Known for its boomerang shape with blue and yellow gradients, the building is hard to miss from the Kennedy Expressway. Unfortunately, the building's rooftop air distribution elements are often considered to detract from its otherwise sleek and unique aesthetic.  

Those same rooftop units seemed to impede the entry of Tom Rossiter, whose four photographs of the building that were submitted to the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects all edited out the units. The entry was one of five that won the top award for design. When asked about the manipulation, Rossiter referred back to the building's architect, Juan Moreno, who acknowledged that he had miscalculated the effect the units would have on the design, but also deferred attention back to Rossiter, noting: "I never tell an artist what to do. That's their work. I never saw it as a misrepresentation. The truth of the matter is, in every photograph that takes place on any building, there is an artistic representation that occurs."

Of course, he's right: lighting, composition, lens choice, etc. — all of these are conscious decisions that influence the final look of a shot. However, digitally removing elements is an entirely different question. It's not uncommon to remove distracting elements; in fact, another of this year's winners removed streetlights, but judges of the contest contend that removing elements that distract from the building is less egregious than removing elements of the building itself. While the awards committee has not mentioned if the honors will be stripped, they have acknowledged that had they been informed of the manipulation prior to the judging, it would have affected their perspective. Nonetheless, in a competition meant to reward top design, it seems a bit strange, if not something more, that a building whose actual design was not captured received honors.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments! 

[via Chicago Tribune]

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Lee Ramsden's picture

Personally i find people get far to involved in this and let it bother them.
If entering a design competition, surely it is the final image that is being judged and not the process on how you got there.

If a documentary competition then that has different rules.

this story still amazes me about Narciso Contreras,
who was slammed for editing out something of his in an image. Rules are rules but i personally find this ridiculous.

J J's picture

Regarding narciso - I wasn't familiar with him until reading your article. But even he says he was ashamed by what he did.

Andre Vandal's picture

Retouching is what I do it's my job, I perform retouching of people, buildings and anything people find they need less of. It has always been here, before we used to do it with airbrush, now it's computers. My photos are my art-form, I retouch every single one of them, don't like it? Don't care.

dale clark's picture

It's one thing to "mis represent" a single item/property that you are directly selling (for example real estate listing). It's another to highlight an "example" of someones work (architect design) for purposes not directly related to "selling" the main subject/property. I think people are too touchy when it comes to editing images, especially for artistic purposes. Contest organizers need to be really specific, especially in todays digital age. Image editing and manipulation has been around since the invention of photography.

Travis Alex's picture

Retouching and manipulation is a byproduct of mechanical age in which we live in. Personally, I see it as the problem with retouching in our generation is the jurours of these competitions. They have one foot in the present, and two feet in the past. If they don't like retouching, they really should stop being judges of these competitions.

nigel walker's picture

Article is pointless without picture of the building in original form and then the comparison. The picture is not even captioned? This makes no sense and is just lazy work.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Exactly. Lazy writes and one heck of a lazy editor.

Ralph Hightower's picture

Okay, this was a photography competition sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The building's architect, Juan Moreno, acknowledged that the HVAC units were a wart on the building's design.

So removing streetlights is okay, but removing warts from the building is not okay. So Tom Rossiter should have submitted photos that shows the warts of El Centro designed by Juan Moreno.

Joe Schmitt's picture

Removing something that's part of the building itself is like adding a new set of windows on to that building. You can't change what's on the building and that's what he did. Even though they are considered "warts" by many, they're still part of the building itself. Removing a streetlight? That's not part of the building itself so I don't see any harm there.

John Sammonds's picture

I don't care if people get upset as to what I put in to competitions the thing I find is the whingers don't enter competitions when they do the images are usually below par and uninteresting when judged usually the judge will say if you just done this in Photoshop you would have done better. I think it because they cant or wont learn Photoshop. The rules should be if you want to just use the image out of your camera find a club or a competition that applies to and let us that want to be creative with our images enjoy our craft. Rant over let the flack

Geoff Bosco's picture

Every once-in-a-while I imagine a 17th century lady looking at a Rubens painting and saying to her friend, "I know that model. She is no where near that curvy. Rubens has gone too far."

Rob Watts's picture

No comparison image? I have no idea what this tower looks like, as I've never heard of it let alone been to Chicago.

Konrad Sarnowski's picture

Can you show something like before/after - I can't relate image above to those of the building found in google :/

Jon Dize's picture

Below is a post I created and have published in many places over the past decade. It is far more fact than opinion.

I have seen lambashing after lambashing of photographers who ALTER their photos using Photoshop or other TOOLS, so one day I sat down and thought about it and I wrote the following.

First... As photographers why wouldn't we be free to EXPERIMENT, only PHOTOJOURNALISTS are expected to produce UNaltered photos, ARTISTS are almost required by definition to CREATE or BUILD without restriction or the confines of definition.

Yet... Photographers seem to RESENT alteration which always seems to me to be a backward thought process and UNTRUTH as I will point out below.

I've never given any and I mean ANY credibility to the argument some eat up with ESOTERICUSBULLSHITICUS (a word I created in 1979 after listening to an Audiophile spewing Techspeak which had no REAL relationship to the question I asked.) blindly suggest, that unless the photo is PURE and has undergone no manipulation, it does not maintain the technical merit of those that are unaltered.

To which I say... BULLHARKEY!

Every photo ever taken was manipulated, from the moment you chose the the camera format, the lens focal length, vertical vs horizontal framing, the aperture, the shutter speed, the lighting, the location, the wardrobe, the make-up, a sunny day or an overcast day, the film brand/quality/resolution/characteristics, similar concerns in digital relative to card/media selection, the ISO you elected to use to get either a low grain/noise end-product or a high ISO rated film to exaggerate the grain/noise or just allow you to shoot handheld in low light conditions.


Then you get the REALLY NAIVE who want to say they want to shoot images IN THE CAMERA like ANSEL ADAMS, FRED ARCHER, Immogene Cunningham, Ernst Haas, all Masters, all members of the Group F64 Club, EVERY ONE OF THEM WERE THE GREATEST IMAGE MANIPULATORS OF THEIR TIME.

Someone told me, "But Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Ernst Haas, Fred Archer did not use Photoshop, their work was PURE PHOTOGRAPHY!" Don't make me use that word again, ESOTERICUS.... Oh you know.

NONSENSE! Every image you have ever seen of THE GREAT PURISTS was MANIPULATED!!!!

They INVENTED many aspects of image manipulation, one in particular... THE ZONE SYSTEM which is the analog version of HDR (High Dynamic Range) Photography.

NOTHING Ansel Adams printed was EVER as it came out of the camera. Using Ansel and Fred Archer's invention, The ZONE SYSTEM, they took control of the lighting, the contrast ratios, both during the in-camera capture and in the printing to the point they even FLASHED their prints during the development process to alter contrasts in tree bark textures.

To use an 8x10 or 4x5 view camera with a bellows to correct perspective, correct lens element distortions, the coating you chose on your lenses to control chromatic aberation, flare and halation, the UV filter you use to reduce the ultra-violet light, the skylight filter you used to add a touch of warmth to the blue ultra-violate of daylight.


Gonna use a fixed lens pocket camera or a DSLR? It is a decision you will make prior to taking the photo that will greatly MANIPULATE the end result.

The focal length of your lens, do you want distortion of ultra wide angle lenses or the compression and Bokeh generated by a 300mm f2.8 telephoto. Do you like the foreshortening of the nose seen in medium telephotos or if you're really intent on exaggerating the rhinal proboscis, use a wide angle, up close and at a low angle.


You light subjects, use gobos to shade subjects, decide on using flash or hot lights, gels or diffusion.

All of these things are IMAGE MANIPULATIONS, except they are Pre-Capture.

If you find it acceptable to use ANY of these image manipulation devices in Pre-Capture, it makes no logical sense whatsoever to LIMIT or cast shame upon the use of OTHER POST-production devices which manipulate the final image.

Be they choices of which developer to use, how hot or cold the developer, how long developed, the dillution rate of the developer, which enlarger lens to use when composing your print, which (PC) Poly Contrast or (CC) Color Correction filter to use, which brand of print paper, will it be RAG or Resin? Bright whites or eggshells, textured, matte or glossy, which contrast value of the paper, will you flash it, fog it are you going to use the ZONE SYSTEM?


Will you crop it to be a panoramic, a square, borders, no borders, will you mount it to canvas, have it lacquered, brush stroked finish, even where you will display the photo is in effect photo manipulation.


So after having done all of that photo manipulation to achieve the image you IMAGINED it would be, both in PRE-Capture and Post-Production all of a sudden using Photoshop to FURTHER MANIPULATE your final image is somehow scorned or frowned upon? It just makes no logical sense whatsoever.

Silly things like that give me hives. Photographers imagine by saying they created their masterful work of art in the camera, without any manipulation whatsoever somehow elevates them above the others, the less educated, the artistially challenged, less skilled, but everytime I hear this argument I can't help but shake my head and think, "IGNORANCE IS BLISS!"

Every single thing a photographer does when they decide to go take a photo including all of the itemized details I have listed in this novella, in some way, in some form, to some degree MANIPULATED THE FINAL OUTCOME OF THEIR IMAGE. PERIOD!

Any argument that using Photoshop to further manipulate that image somehow makes it less respectable or deserving of ire or scorn is ludicrous.

Generally these are photographers who do not yet understand how to use Photoshop, so they feel taller when they argue against the use of this amazing and often vital tool of the many tools photographers use to create the image they imagined in their mind's eye.


Only the photographer and maybe, maybe, maybe other photographers care how you got the photo.

NOTHING bores an Art Director, Marketing Director or Director of Advertising more than a photographer describing how hard or how much work, talent or this or that went into creating the photo... THEY JUST COULD NOT CARE LESS!

In the commercial world, a photo has no value unless it does one of these FIVE things, it must ENHANCE something, it must PROMOTE something, it must SELL something it must DOCUMENT something, it must EXPOSE/REVEAL something or it has virtually no value whatsoever.

Art has been defined to have no definition, so anything and everything is art. FANTABULOUS! Artists love that kind of double-speak. Remember that word I created decades ago... ESOTERICUSBULLSHITICUS!

If nothing matters and everything is art, then just set the self timer on your camera for three seconds and toss your camera as high in the air as you can and when you catch it... you will have a wonderful example of... ART! Photography is easy huh?

So why on earth, when so many DECISIONS and by default MANIPULATIONS of our images VIA those DECISIONS are made with every photo we take would we somehow find it SENSIBLE and LOGICAL to eliminate Photoshop and other TOOLS from the list of ways and means we use to create our finished product.

What matters in Photography is the END RESULT, as I have said a thousand times, those who matter, don't really care how you got there as long as you did.


Well... you did ask!

Geoff Captain's picture

I take out environmental elements all the time, or minor interior or exterior building elements that are non-essential and distracting. But, in this case the building design was modified and then submitted for AIA review, which is a much different case than an image intended for portfolio or marketing use.

As others have mentioned, we really need to see comparison photos to judge how egregious the modification was, but this sounds like a bad case of retouching to me.

Matthew Kirschner's picture

You wouldn't believe me if I told you how much my clients ask me to photoshop! Remove this desk, change the color of this wall, add some people here, remove that building over there, etc. Architectural photography is not really just about showing a building as is - stuff happens during construction that the architect can't control. The photographs are intended to portray the architect's vision, which may or may not be reflected in the final reality. Plus, some folks don't like simple things like light switches, security cameras, etc. This shouldn't be controversial.