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Is Straight Photography Dead?

For some time now, I've been hearing that straight photography is dead. Well, dying anyway.

By "straight" photography, I am referring to the act of making an image that depicts a scene in sharp focus and with minimal manipulation. I say minimally, because historically, the "straight" photographers or "purists" did, in fact, enhance their images in the darkroom for things like exposure, contrast, tone, etc. What they did not do, in contrast to the pictorialists, is manipulate the image by adding Vaseline to their lenses or chemicals to their negatives and so on to achieve a more dreamy or painterly appearance. In other words, straight photography is about aiming the camera and taking a photograph — what you see is what you get. And, what you get is what you present to the world. Facing reality, as it were. 

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet

Today, most photographers load their images into Lightroom or Photoshop and manipulate their "negatives" into something more than merely what was "seen" by their camera. More and more, photographers seem to be leaning toward the "pictorialism" end of the spectrum and away from straight photography. As a street photographer, I immediately think about the "light and shadow" images that are very trendy right now in street photography. You know, the guy in the shadows where all you see is his fedora. Obviously, not a scene we actually see in the world, but one that is made on the photographer's computer. For example, go to the featured photos on our homepage here and take a look. What do you see? I imagine, on most any day, you will see highly manipulated photographs, not straight photography. Even the whole Instagram filter craze (a bit passe now) was a prime example of how straight photography simply wouldn't do. 

Oddly, straight photography emerged (as a labeled entity) in response to pictorialism, and not the other way around. When photography was first invented, it was intensely compared to painting and other art forms where the artist's "hand" was present in the result. Photography was a poor match for this kind of art, as it merely (but accurately) reproduced and by mechanical means to boot. Put differently, photography was not accepted as art because photographs were simply mechanical copies. Pictorialists intervened in the mechanical process (by way of manipulation) and produced photographs that were "artistically unique." Over time, as our way of seeing adjusted to pictorialism, a new kind of photography would emerge — straight photography. Photographers like Paul Strand aimed to stand out from the crowd precisely because they used mechanical means to reproduce "pure" reality. 

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet

When humans look at art, we are, seemingly, always looking for new ways to see. We want to be enraptured by a disruption to our normal way of visually consuming. We want, simply put, to see something different. In this way, photography is (and always has been) a dance to produce something new from the relatively limited stuff of reality. And so, the pendulum swings between pictorialism (the Photoshop photographers in today's terms) and the straight photographers (street and documentary photographers, for example). When we tire of a stream of visuals from one, we begin a shift toward the other. This has played out in the world of painting too. Various forms of realism to various forms of abstraction (put most simply). 

So, is pure photography on the way out? No, you say. Indeed, someone in the comments will accuse me of feigning a crisis. This is not my intention. Seriously, I want to know if you believe that straight photography is going by the wayside? Will we all be compelled to sit in front of Photoshop and "manipulate" our images in order to attract attention to our work or sell our prints? Will there continue to be any value in a photograph that simply reproduces reality as it was seen? A point and shoot! I think this is a very valid question given what I am seeing in galleries and published in monographs. 

Let's examine this from a slightly different angle. Analog photography is a huge trend these days. Yet, I do not see much of the resulting photography in galleries or being published by major publishers. I don't see much of this work winning major contests or getting any attention at all. Sure, we can see it on a Lomography website or at a street photography meetup, but not so much in the real world of photography outside of these niche venues. No one seems to be too impressed by it, other than other people who are also shooting film. In some ways, the act of shooting film seems to be more of an attraction than the actual product being produced (the analog photograph). So, how does this relate? Well, most analog photography (especially the stuff shot these days) is minimally manipulated or processed. Most analog photography we see today is a form of straight photography. Could I, then, take a Rollei 35 and a roll of Tri-X and hit the streets of New York and ever take a photograph that would compete with the images you see in the "featured photos" section on this website? Would I ever win a contest or get a print hung in a gallery by simply "aiming and clicking" and then straightforwardly developing the film? I think the answer is no, I would not. And neither would you.

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet

I anticipate more criticism. But good photographs were always "manipulated," you say. No one ever made a photograph that was just blindly processed that became an iconic image (at least aside from documentary photographs). Okay, I will bend a little. Yes, great photographers of eras past did, indeed, process their image and manipulate their prints in the darkroom. However, the degree to which these images were manipulated does not compare to what we see today. Today, a photographer routinely goes beyond "straight reality" in nearly every instance of Photoshop usage. The sky is bluer, the snow is whiter, the rain is wetter, and so on. Artistic license is employed to its maximum. This is what people expect now when they view "good" photography. A simple image, no matter how great in terms of subject matter, faces a steep uphill battle against the new pictorialists — the Photoshop photographers. If all you know is how to load film, focus your camera, and take a photo, you are doomed to failure. A statement that was not true just a decade ago. 

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80 Comments

Timothy Roper's picture

"I don't see much of this work winning major contests or getting any attention at all." You need to do a little more research on film photographers. To get you started, here are a few award-wining, high profile ones: Luo Yang, Jamie Hawkesworth and Yan Wang Preston. I mean come on, is a simple Google search too much work?

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Hi Tim, No, it's not. But I think the trend is still there. I'm not saying there are NO film photographers (or straight photographers) getting attention, rather, I'm claiming that it is a diminishing aesthetic. I've been on the jury of several major photography competitions over the past couple of years and this is the trend I've noticed. Of course, everything is open to debate.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

Agreed.

Christopher Quevedo's picture

you may have meant to say its a “diminishing aesthetic”, but you said “is straight photography dead?” kinda insinuates more than a simple diminishing.

Brian Rankin's picture

If you're going to reference "straight" photography, Jamie really isn't someone you'd bring up. Tons of darkroom work.

Chuck Nar's picture

I'm confused, you start off by stating "By "straight" photography, I am referring to the act of making an image that depicts a scene in sharp focus and with minimal manipulation." Yet the three images you show are not sharp and certainly have been highly manipulated. Personally, for me, I don't care for any of them. I would guess your camera did not capture fuzzy images on solid backgrounds with no other detail. I will agree with you that I find images today to be highly manipulated. Something I would say is a more artistic interpretation of the actual scene than pure photography (i.e., what the saw saw/captured with minor adjustment).

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Right, Chuck. My point exactly --- that highly manipulated images are being preferred over "straight photography". These images I presented are not my favorites, at all. In fact, I don't much like them, they were simply the only "highly manipulated" images I have ever made. I am a fan of straight photography, but I think I am on an uphill battle in today's photography world.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

I think you are right. The industry of producing these extraordinally boring Photoshop fakes are on the rise. Luckily I’m not living from selling photos. I prefer the purists take on it, and fail so see much artistic quality in those changed skies & sunsets. I only photograph for pleasing myself, and the value is high for me. I do it with a digicam, but adjust only the basics. Well, there will be a counterwave: Nostalgia, the story a picture tell on a meta plane; it is a value there. «Camera Lucida,Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes is a great start. He even valued ordinary snapshots. They had a sentimental value for ppl.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Adjusting the basics was always a thing. It's the idea of "making the photograph" in software that is a bit odd. I too prefer the purist approach. Hopefully, it will come back!

Timothy Roper's picture

Here's one of my favorites, from the 1950's, by Lillian Bassman. She did a lot of manipulation back in the day (and I've read did use PS later in life), which was probably called avant garde back then. But in any event, none of this is new, or a film vs. digital debate. Aesthetics come and go in trendiness, but they never die. Otherwise, Bassman's aethetic would have died out, rather than be seeing a resurgence.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I totally agree. Thanks for sharing!

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Tim, what a great photo by the way! I never thought I would see another "umbrella" photo that I actually like ... but here it is -- quite stunning.

Michael Steinbach's picture

Excellent article, very accurate and well stated in nearly every way. In our digital world our cameras sees color science, color pallet, contrast and saturation through the manufacture’s preset looks. And then we can tweak it from there. We start out in a hole larger than analog.

Compared to analog where we controlled the look by the film choices and a person that did our printing, (I had only one person I trusted to print for me back then).

Would I change anything to get to the purist way of shooting? No, but I am cognizant of overworking any image.

Again, great article Michael.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks, Michael. I appreciate hearing your comments.

Eric Robinson's picture

While your comment is very well presented and well articulated I think what you forget, what the main article forgets, is the initial intentions of the photographer. The final image is all about expressing the creative desire of the photographer at that moment, whatever it happens to be, a documentary style shot that attempts to capture a moment seen by the photographer as 'honestly' as it is possible( if indeed it is) or a designed stylised portrait manipulated to the taste of the photographer both pre and post processing. Are you also saying that digital colour science is farther from reality than film manufactures emulsions? Did or does Kodak Ektar 100 reproduce reality? Is the world as super saturated as this film stock claims? I would maintain that a neutral colour RAW digital image has a far better chance of expressing a perceived reality of a subject than any chemically produced image. This is one thing can could actually be proved if one had the time and the inclination. I for one don't give two hoots. I think there is a complete misunderstanding of there being some inherent truth possessed by analogue photography that somehow imagines that it can capture reality in a more natural and honest way. It is and always was no more than just an opinion much like music via vinyl or digital. You yourself stated that you would only trust one printer, and Ill bet you had your go to film as you preferred its 'look' over the look of its competitors.
In my opinion the initial question; Is Straight Photography Dead? could be argued to be meaningless as did it ever exist in the first place? For some people they would maintain the answer would be yes while others it be a resounding no. This is the problem we face when we express what is no more than an opinion. Photography is not science, there is and never has been a definitive truth and much as we would like to think there are no hard and fast rules. Does every photograph need to be sharp? No. For those that require juice in their photographs they will find as they grow up their tastes will change.

Jim L's picture

I agree. I belong to a couple of groups of photographers who meet (well now Zoom) to show and discuss their photographs. Without splitting definitional hairs, anything that I would consider straight photography with little manipulation elicits yawns or advice on "juicing it up". This is not just for street shots, but includes architectural and landscape shots as well. The whole AI revolution is playing into this and increasingly the "juice" is built into the camera or made one-click-simple through software.

In the end one style isn't better than the other. Just act on your own personal preferences, find others who are in sync with your thinking, and enjoy photography in your own way. For myself I've all but dropped out of the two groups I referred to above, but have found online others who see it the way I do.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Great advice, Jim. Unfortunately, I think we will all have to live with the spotlight shining on the "manipulated" photography for a while to come. In the meantime, we can find solace among friends.

Mike Robinson's picture

By 'straight photography' you mean images that are manipulated by your camera's internal digital processing or the qualities of the film stock, with little input from the photographer.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Mike, the video gives more detail about "straight photography" but I mean, simply put, "point and shoot".... what you see is what you get. No manipulation.

Charles Mercier's picture

Yes, but one needs to "manipulate" the image to accurately recreate what you saw.

Terry Waggoner's picture

This topic has been yakked to death even before the advent of digital cameras. That said. I firmly believe that "straight photographer"(that term alone can cause considerable consternation to some) of the prior eras would use the tools we have today without any angst or trepidation.

John Mott's picture

You close with “If all you know is how to load film, focus your camera, and take a photo, you are doomed to failure. A statement that was not true just a decade ago.” That statement was not true FIVE decades ago. In the late 60s and early 70s, I worked in photojournalism where we were held to a very high standard of “straight photography.” We did way more than just load film, focus and take a photo. We adjusted ISO/exposure in processing, printed on paper in SIX different contrast grades, used “nose grease” to “clone out” scratches on our negatives, and relied on half a dozen different techniques to draw out detail in highlights/shadows. When all else failed, we had a graphic artist with an airbrush who split our photos into two layers (sort of like we do today in Photoshop) to darken the background and create separation between the subject and background. Fifty-plus years ago, if all you knew was how to load, focus and shoot, you’d have been totally lost in the world of photography.

Kirk Darling's picture

Processing by inspection--I did it. I also did split-contrast printing using different contrast filters on polycontrast paper during multiple exposures to extend the contrast range, printing the shadows through the high contrast filters and burning in highlights with the low contrast filter.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Good points, John. I wonder, do you feel it is all the same today then .... just digital. By that I mean, do you feel a lot of the photos we see celebrated today are not "more processed" than they would have been in the old days?

John Mott's picture

Yes, a lot of today's celebrated photos are "more processed" than they would have been in the old days. My point is just that "straight photography" died a long time ago. Ansel Adams was a master at manipulating his images. It's just easier to do now with PS and so many other digital processing tools. Thanks for the initiating this discussion. I love to go back in my mind to the old days of film photography. I have no desire to go back there in reality, but it's fun to remember.

james Churchill's picture

This is absurd click bait. The definition used by the author is not universal. To answer the question - the art market says no.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks for the input, James. All feedback is helpful.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

I think that straight photography has an important teaching value. When shooting "straight", one must focus on composition and light, as those two variables tend to dominate the output.

eg.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/westendfoto/28458600734/in/album-721576666...

This image has been dodged and burned with contrast added. The first two can be done to negatives in the darkroom and the last one can be achieved by choice of film.

David Pavlich's picture

Another purist vs post processing lovers, an opinion piece. It solves nothing because this is ALL SUBJECTIVE.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Yes, subjective --- but are MORE people leaning toward heavy manipulation these days, is the aesthetic tide turning. That was the question.

David Pavlich's picture

Probably. It's what a lot of people like. Some of my favorite shots in today's images are the B&W architecture shots. Far from what the camera saw, but they sure do evoke a lot of love.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

The is a collection of essays on Photography called "Classic Essays on Photography" the Authors rang from Daguerre to writers in the 70s. This is what they were all talking about in some form. If you think the issues are just about post processing, your missing the idea completely.

David Pavlich's picture

If that's the case, then why does the author mention over processed images? And who defines 'straight photography'? The end product is always subjective. My definition of straight photography is taking single shots. Once the shot is taken, it takes the shape of whatever the shooter decides it should look like. If the shooter likes how it came out of the camera, then that's the proper way for THAT PERSON'S to appear. If the photographer has other ideas of how he/she wants the end product to look, who is the photo guru that tells that person that what he/she has done is right or wrong?

The definition of straight photography is up to the person taking the shot, not me, not you, not the author, or anyone else for that matter. Well, we can leave out shots taken for a client since the client dictates the outcome.

Carl Marschner's picture

This is still basically how I work. I don't have the patience for super extensive editing so if I can't get the effect in camera, most likely I'm not getting it

T Van's picture

I'm right there with you Carl. I have little interest in post editing. My interest is in the composition of the photo I am preparing to take. Using my creativity to make something different that the camera then captures, not after I've released the shutter.

Jan Holler's picture

Minimal manipulation? I see what you mean about taking a look at flickr or probably any other photography site. Just look at the bottom of this page. It's no different. But the distinction, on one side heavily manipulated photos, on the other side "sharp and with minimal manipulation", I think is arbitrary. There were (and are, but not so many anymore) as many different photo papers to choose from as there were (sadly, not anymore) many different brands of film with different properties. Is using a flash, or worse, more than one, still "straight photography"? (I would choose a different expression, especially in today's times). The world is full of colors, so even a black and white photo is "straight photography" or not, because taking away colors is manipulation? A lens with strong vignetting: still straight photography? (One of the manipulations often seen today is the artificial addition of vignetting).

Photographic papers of the 20th century: https://theclassicphotomag.com/photographic-papers-research-authenticati...

Charles Clark's picture

Simply editing for sharpness ,contrast , exposure and composition no longer is enough to be considered among the best of photographers. Those things are what I grew up in photography believing to be essential. Sad to say straight photography is now left behind in favor of photoshop mastery. If you do not believe that to be true consider all the before and after examples people show. Almost always the before from top cameras in the canon , nikon , fujifilm etc lines look no better than results I get from my pentax ks2 20 mp dslr. The after on the other hand is a display of the photographer's talented use of photoshop. Indeed great images are presented "after" but alas they are no longer straight photography.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

My point exactly, Charles. I totally agree.

George Kunze's picture

If all you know is how to load film, focus your camera and shoot, you were always doomed to failure. You don't even need a human to do that.

Mark Smith's picture

As a photographer over the past 35+ years, shooting film, developing film, and printing images in my bathroom. I reluctantly moved to digital 15+ years ago but have always kept my one foot in film.
I believe today we have such a saturation of imaging, some are photography and others are manipulated images. The internet since 1994 has been a bastion of acquiring billions and billions of images from an infinite source of users from photographers to content creators.
Photography in its most simplistic terms will never die, its tools will evolve but the philosophical and emotional desire to create still images will never go away.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Thank for your observations. I thought that if I read articles here eventually I would find one with valid observations about the art of photography. I recently shared a series of images I did years ago that were 35mm printed full frame with black edge, and their comment was "it is nice to see full frame images that do not have a photoshopped border". By the way we share the Rollei 35/triX experience!

Salty Cremepuff's picture

It's alive and well. You just need to know where to look.

Kirk Darling's picture

I disagree that straight photography is "dead" or even that it doesn't win awards, but to win awards, a "straight" photograph must make a very definite artistic statement that snares the mind and opens it up. An award-winning "straight" photograph can't just be a technically proficient photograph. It needs that "What? Hmmm...." quality.

The work of Jeff Wall is an example.

David Pavlich's picture

I did a very unscientific 'study' of images on View Bug. Educated guess, I'd say 99% of the members are photographers. I picked a few really nice shots. Some of the most awarded shots are wildlife that don't show a lot of post processing manipulation.

However, I chose several landscape shots that caught my attention. These were obviously given extra attention in post. These shots were also awarded heavily, some with better than 4000 awards.

Does it prove anything? Certainly not my study, but it does show that photographers have diverse taste.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Right. Scroll down and look at the photos at the bottom of this page --- do you think ANY qualify as "straight" photography?

Michael Clark's picture

Ansel Adams is often viewed as one of the greatest practitioners of straight photography. Yet compare these two prints of 'Moonrise: Hernandez, NM' he made from the same negative.

Art historian H. W. Janson called this photo "a perfect marriage of straight and pure photography". Yet if you examine some of the over 1300 prints that Adams produced from the negative himself it is very clear that over the course of more than three decades he produced a series with a remarkable range of variation. Adams explored the relationship between the various elements in the scene until he finally seemed to have found what he was looking for. The prints we now view as "definitive" did not appear until the late 1960s or early 1970s. Adams took the photograph in 1941.

In some ways 'Moonrise...' encapsulates Adams' entire career. It shows how his darkroom techniques and processes continued to evolve well into his 70s. It's certainly one of his most popular images, with estimates of between 900 and 1300 prints made by Adams himself sold to clients.

http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/grant/ansel-adams-moonrise-her...

I'm not sure your description of Straight Photography is all that accurate.

Michael Clark's picture

There is no such thing as a natural photo. Whether intentional or not, every photo is an interpretation of reality. Cameras don't see the same way our eyes/brains do. I don't think I've ever seen a photograph that was "plausible as a real life eye view." I'm always aware I am viewing a photograph rather than the actual scene.

What is included and what is excluded from the frame is an interpretive decision. So is the perspective that results from the selected shooting distance.

The aperture selected that determines depth of field creates a certain interpretation. The same exact scene shot with a 300mm lens at f/2.8 will look entirely different than that same scene shot at f/16, especially if there are large differences in distance from the camera between the nearest and most distant objects in the field of view. Which interpretation is 'straight' and which is 'not straight'?

How long the shutter is open can be very interpretive depending on how static or how much motion is in the scene. Which interpretation is 'straight' and which is 'not straight'?

How bright the overall exposure is as determined by the combination of shutter speed, aperture, and sensitivity (ISO) can greatly alter the mood of the scene. Which interpretation is 'straight' and which is 'not straight'?

Even the amount of noise or distortion introduced by the camera or lens can alter the interpretation of reality created by a photo. Which interpretation is 'straight' and which is 'not straight'?

All of those interpretive decisions have already been made at the time the shutter button is pressed all the way down! We could go on and on about each step in the editing process as well. And editing a photo, whether in the darkroom or at the computer, has always been an interpretive process.

The digital age just moved the manipulation of transforming the recorded image to a print from the darkroom to the desktop. It is true that it has also expanded the possibilities of the degree to which an image may be manipulated, but perhaps not as much as some might think. What it has really done is made that manipulation much less time consuming and allowed us to do it much more efficiently. In the film era we could have shot the same scene with dozens of different types of film. Now we can take a single RAW image and retroactively apply the characteristics of each of those films. What would have taken weeks or months to meticulously combine several varying exposures into a single image of a high dynamic range scene we can now do in a matter of minutes.

From the moment we select what to leave in the frame and what to leave out, we are creating something that is different from the reality it represents. Susan Sontag once said, "...to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude."

A photograph is always an expression of the photographer's vision. Sometimes it may closely resemble what others see when they look at what has been photographed. Sometimes it can be totally transformational. On rare occasions it can be both.

What the masters of straight photography did was take the same scene we could look at with our own eyes and via their photographs show us what we didn't see when we looked at it with our own eyes. If straight photography is dying, it is because there is no longer anyone who can, or at the very least anyone who will, look at a scene until they can see what the rest of us don't.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks for all your input, Michael. Looks like you should be writing photography articles!

Jan Holler's picture

Well said and valid.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Great points indeed. Thanks for thinking this through, Michael.

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