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Photography and Artistic Forgery

This guest post is adapted from an academic essay originally written as a thesis on the philosophy of aesthetics at the University of Edinburgh.


Most people would agree that photography is a form of art. However, its horizons are somewhat broader than most art forms, and what we refer to as “photography” can serve many purposes – by no means all of which are artistic. Photography is often put to purely documentary uses, with no artistic intention acknowledged – in scientific applications, for instance. But many photojournalists consider themselves artists, in a field that most people consider purely documentary. The majority of photographs used for advertising and marketing are presented in such a way as to appear documentary, but are carefully arranged to show off the product’s best features and downplay its faults – selectively representing it. Yet many laypersons, as well as some philosophers (notoriously, Scruton), believe photography cannot show anything except exactly as it is, disempowering photographs from being representational artworks. Many viewers of photographs consider photography a means of “copying”, and use photographs of artworks and people as substitutes for the “real thing”, treating the photograph as a mere window to its subject. [Scruton, Photography and Representation] Still others spend long periods of time poring over the surface features of photographs, examining the interplay of colours and contrasts, discussing how compositional lines lead the eye through the image, and even entirely disregarding the subject matter. Digital photography permits infinitely greater control over the end image for the artist, so why do many “old-school” film photographers claim it is not “true photography”? Why do such controversies arise in the response to photography’s role as an art, when they do not appear to arise elsewhere in art or technology? I believe it is because the term “photography” lacks a clear ontological definition, and past oversimplification has thus far denied us any means of building one. I intend to construct a basic framework for such a definition based around various categorisations produced by (relatively) contemporary philosophers of art.

Many philosophers have tried to define or pigeonhole photography in various hierarchies, and many of these definitions are partially successful. But there is one tool they have not appealed to – the question whether artistic forgery is possible within photography, and if so, how. I argue that photography can be defined with the help of the terms coined by past philosophers, in conjunction with empirical analysis of cultural attitudes to intention and attribution in photography, examining especially the constants in these definitions illuminated by changes accompanying the last decade’s shift from film to digital that the photography world has almost finished taking.

Many philosophers have also tried to find novel ways to answer the timeless question “what is art?” Some have suggested that art is simply whatever is decreed as such by (potentially self-declared) members of the Artworld. [Dickie, What Is Art?: An Institutional Analysis] Others tell us that the definition of art is impossible, and the relations between things we call art are simply family resemblances. [Weitz, The Role of Theory in Aesthetics. Davies, Definitions of Art, p.229] Choosing and defending a theory of art is far beyond the scope of this document. Fortunately, I do not believe a rigorous definition of art is needed to describe what sort of art form photography is, and certainly not to prove it is some form of art in the first place. This is because, regardless of how art is to be categorised (or even if it is mere family resemblances), we can still make good progress by discussing a posteriori ideas common to photography and other broadly accepted forms of art (such as painting, music, literature etc).

Before we progress further, it is important to define what it is we mean by photography. It seems clear that the process we refer to as photography goes beyond the moment of exposure itself. Certainly it involves displaying the finished image – whether that involves developing the film and printing or projecting slides, or uploading the digital camera’s image file to a computer, or even just viewing it on the camera’s screen. Nobody takes photographs without intending them to be seen, at least by the photographer himself, so this must be an integral part of what we call photography. It surely also includes the act of choosing lenses, film and camera settings (aperture, shutter speed, etc) – it is a mistake to say this choice is avoidable; automatic “point and shoot” cameras only differ in that the choice has been made already. Then selecting subject matter is also part of the act – simply pointing the camera achieves that, and it is another necessary condition of photography. Thus the same with framing and composition within the frame. Perhaps the photographer chooses to use his camera’s flash – then control of the lighting in an image is also in the photographer’s domain. Since we have modified the scene physically, if even for a split second, it is no great stretch to argue that physically arranging the scene for the end image is also part of photography. Certainly these are all things done specifically by photographers. What about after the exposure? Does altering a digital image’s colours and contrast fall under the umbrella of the act named “photography”? It is impossible to make prints from film negatives without making decisions about colour balance, image crop and exposure. In fact most digital cameras do alter the image in some way before it leaves the camera, usually enhancing colour and contrast and removing noise. Then altering this manually in postprocessing must count also. It seems clear that every decision we make to intentionally alter the appearance of the final image is part of what we mean by photography.

Most modern philosophers agree that photography is indeed a form of art, even if they do not agree on how to place it in our artistic ontology. The most notorious exception to this is Scruton, who states photography is incapable of representation because a photographer cannot exert any control over the appearance of his subject. There is a lot of literature in response to his article, but the most interesting are the replies of Warburton [Warburton, Individual Style in Photographic Art] and Maynard [Maynard, “Photography” in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, p.477] as they do not just focus on Scruton’s obvious misrepresentation of actual photography (rather than his “ideal” photography), but provide positive ideas for how photography can be representational – specifically, the concept of artistic style applied to photography. The idea that artists can have a style demonstrable through their works is something that is seemingly applicable to all art forms, and is key to defining exactly what sort of art photography can be. We can appeal to the relation between artistic style and forgery to clarify photography’s artistic capacities.

Warburton states that from an image alone, it is difficult to tell how much of what we see is due to the photographer. [Warburton, Individual Style in Photographic Art, p.227] He suggests that a series of images is needed to make sense of a photographer’s choices, and thus understand their style. Contrary to Bazin’s claim that photography has brought about a “conflict between style and likeness” [Bazin, Ontology of the Photographic Image, p.278], Warburton rightly points out that artistic style is crucial for representation (something Scruton feels photography has no claim to). Scruton admits the possibility of style in photography, but insists the choices a photographer can make are simple ones able to affect only a few surface variables of the photograph in a crude manner – presumably he has in mind different special effects produced in development and printing. He does not seem to have considered the potential subtleties of placing focus, depth of field control and composition. Emerson wrote in 1890 “control of the picture is possible to a slight degree … but the all vital powers of selection and rejection are fatally limited.” [Emerson, quoted in Warburton, Individual Style in Photographic Art, p.227] However true this may or may not have been in the film era, the digital darkroom enables us complete control over selection and rejection. Since Scruton believes postprocessing of any kind is “polluting” the ideal of photography, he would likely also discount the infinitely subtle control of details that digital editing gives the photographer as illegitimate [Ibid., p.226] – although such a position would be untenably weak in the face of digital photography, where postprocessing begins in the camera itself. Regardless, it is clear that there is such a thing as recognisable style amongst photographers, and would certainly not be so distinguishable it were limited to a handful of special effects. For a real-life example of a photographer’s distinctive recognisable visual style, independent of subject matter choice, see plates 10 to 17.

Plates: Photographic style transcends subject matter.

Abresch has many individual recognisable techniques to her style – the use of high key black and white, exploration of the interplay of shadows with colourless texture, etc – but none of them are common to all of the images. In contrast to this example, see plates 18 to 23 for treatments of the same subject matter in radically differing styles. If style were as easily discounted as Scruton would have us believe, and representation impossible, we would surely not be able to discern such deeply expressive differences between the images of the dandelion.

Plates: Same subject, different styles

I would suggest that sometimes unsubtle (perhaps strong, but not necessarily crude) stylistic choices are necessary in order to make the statement or produce the aesthetic effect the artist is aiming for. It could be argued that even the most subtle and original stylistic choice can start to seem exceedingly crude in repetition, as is demonstrated by the progression of memes and clichés in the fast-moving world of digital images. More interesting to us, though, is the development of clichés in art photography (see plates 1 to 9). What was at one point an imaginative but perhaps inexpressive choice has turned into a recognisable style. The photographers following it fully acknowledge that they are paying homage to an original conception – producing original works in an existing style – an activity that if coupled with misrepresentation of a work’s history, becomes known as forgery.

Plates: Evolution of a cliché.

The term “forgery” is often used indiscriminately to refer to any one of three “artistic crimes”. Forgery is used to either talk about attempting to faithfully copy an existing work (sometimes defined as fake to discern from forgery [Conklin, Art Crime, p.48]), illegitimately claim an existing work as one’s own (false attribution), or produce an original work “in the style of” a known artist. All three are relevant to photography in different ways, but the latter is vital to understanding originality in art. In short, if a given artist’s work can be forged (as opposed to copied or falsely attributed), the artist must by definition have established an artistic style. [Beardsley, Notes on Forgery, p.226] If a photograph can be forged, the target photographer must have taken other photographs that display an artistic style, and these must possess the potential to be representational (although representation is not necessary for a photograph with a style to bear aesthetic significance [Warburton, Individual Style in Photographic Art, p.230]).

It is not meaningful to talk about copying with all art forms – a painting or sculpture may be copied in an artistically fraudulent sense, but it is meaningless to talk about copying a published poem or a musical score. Instead one can only create a new instance of the existing work. [Goodman, Art and Authenticity, pp.102-103] Goodman thus differentiates autographic from allographic works. If copy of a work “does not count as genuine” [Ibid., p.103], the art is autographic. Photography however presents a problem – copies can be either genuine instances of a photograph or fraudulent copies depending on the manner and circumstance of their production. A negative can be printed by the photographer countless times and the prints sold, and these are considered genuine instances of the original photograph; but if a print is scanned and reprinted by a third party and sold, that is not a genuine print. However, if the negative is photomechanically reproduced, the new copy will not be a genuine instance of the original work either.

Goodman defines all artworks as having discrete stages, autographic typically but not necessarily (he provides counterexamples) having one, and allographic two (music for instance having the composition as the first stage and performance as the second). [Ibid., p.104] If we take photography to be like printmaking in Goodman’s example, it is a two-stage art – the creation of the negative is the first stage, and the printing the second (a “performance” of the photograph, with the negative as the “score”). However, his simplistic account creates many questions. If the camera is a digital one, and the image viewed on its screen, does the process suddenly become one-stage? Does it then revert to two-stage if the camera is connected to a printer? What if a slide rather than a negative is produced, that can be projected or viewed on its own, but not duplicated? At what point exactly is the first stage of the work complete, at the end of the exposure? But until the film is developed, the work is subject to change if exposed to light. But the development of the print is often left to photo labs, so is surely a separate stage of the work from what the photographer does with his camera, yet it is not a performance because there can be only one copy of the work at this point. If the photographer arranges the scene and the lighting, is that not his first stage? But he may just as easily snap a shot of a landscape, the creation of which cannot be attributed to him. If the scene is his first stage, what’s to stop him placing the camera on a tripod and repeatedly exposing identical frames of film to produce countless negatives or slides, thus shifting the entire stage ladder down a step (by placing the first stage at the scene creation, and second stage at the exposure)?

The different stages of photography appear able to have different statuses as autographic or allographic artworks, which seems to be contradictory to Goodman’s insistence that if a work is autographic, the art it belongs to is also autographic. In fact Goodman addresses this issue, and defines print-making (with plates, but with equal relevance to photography) as an autographic but multiple art [Ibid.], later clarifying the definition by appeal to accepted notation – as in a musical score. But what of digital photography? The image produced by a digital camera is in an accepted notation (usually JPEG encoding), and can be copied exactly, infinite numbers of times, and remain the genuine photograph. [Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye, pp.49-51] In this case each displaying or printing of the image would be equivalent to a performance of a score, and the photograph becomes allographic by Goodman’s own standards. A different real-life example might be Carl Andre’s sculpture Equivalent VIII – an arrangement of bricks in a prescribed manner. When sold to the Tate, it had already been dismantled, and a new “instance” had to be constructed using new bricks. [Busch, A Decade of Sculpture: the New Media in the 1960's] While not physically identical, the prescriptive work was treated like a music score and its construction as the performance. In this case, the creation of the score and its performance are by the same individual, so here an example of sculpture becomes a single-stage allographic work of art. It therefore seems clear that Goodman’s autographic/allographic distinction is not sufficient to define modularisable, but not intrinsically modular, arts – which photography has been one of since the advent of digital imaging.

Forgery in digital photography on the other hand is a questionable area. While going digital does not impact photographers’ ability to build up an aesthetically expressive photographic style, Mitchell argues [Ibid., pp. 51-53] that because of the lossless nature of digital images, it is impossible to establish the provenance of a work, and therefore the meaning of authorship is diminished. Mitchell compares digital images to text fragments and sound samples in having “input value” [Ibid., p.52] to other systems. However, digital art photographs are complete finished works and not aesthetic fragments, and there is a clear distinction in how art and non-art photographs are treated in terms fragmentary use. He gives an example of scientific images being altered subtly as they circulate, so there is no longer an original. However, Goodman’s categories were intended to be applied only to artistic works, and style is certainly not relevant to scientific images, which makes one wonder just what kind of authorship Mitchell has in mind, if not artistic. I believe the concept of attribution is still vital in digital art photography, perhaps even more so than in analogue photography. Of the three categories of so-called forgery I defined above, the most profitable with painting has been forgery “proper” (new works in an existing style). With photography, making mechanical copies of existing prints and passing them off as originals has proved the most effective art crime. Illegitimately claiming artworks as one’s own has been relatively rare, as it is much more profitable to sell one’s own work as a Vermeer than to claim a known Vermeer as one’s own work.

It is ironic that photography has been used the least for this type of forgery, despite its capacity for precise reproduction. Only a few artists have experimented with direct photographic “appropriation”, most notably Sherrie Levine, who signed and exhibited her own photographs of Walker Evans’ photographs from a catalogue of his works. [Heather Duffy, Sherrie Levine: Photographer, Artist, Image Appropriator] However, with digital photography, the value balance is reversed. As Mitchell states, it is difficult to track attribution in the digital world, and all that is required to claim oneself as the author of a work is possession of a copy of the original digital file. In comparison, it is meaningless to “own” the digital equivalent of an original print, as infinite identical quality copies can be made from any one instance – again, like a musical score. As a result, this theft of attribution is the most common, and most worried about, “art crime” on the internet. It is not uncommon to find members of free-to-join photographic gallery sites who have simply copied photographs found elsewhere on the internet and attached their own name to claim credit – in fact, most such sites have a feature to report this sort of action specifically.

As a result of this kind of activity, online artists go to great lengths to preserve attribution of their images. Digital watermarks, equivalent to signatures on paintings, are common on stock and art photography sites (recently the BBC website hosting “Doctor Who” images has added such watermarks in response to unofficial prints of the images being made and sold on eBay [British Broadcasting Corporation. Doctor Who Gallery]). Most photographers will make available only scaled-down low-resolution versions of their images, keeping their originals closely guarded. Many will also remove the EXIF data portion of the file, which stores information about the equipment and software used to produce the image.

Advanced technologies have also been developed to enable the provenance of images to be traced – most notably, invisible digital watermarking, embedding secret data about authorship and origin in the image that can even survive the printing and re-scanning of the image [Mintzer, Lotspiech, Morimoto, Safeguarding Digital Library Contents and Users], and various hardware “verification kits” that work with a digital camera to prove that an image has not been modified since creation. [Digital Photography Review, Canon Data Verification Kit DVK-E2] Tracing the history of an image has been crucial to defining the concept of originality for many philosophers [Lessing, What Is Wrong With a Forgery?, pp.71-72.][Conklin, Art Crime, p.49], and having a verifiable provenance goes some way to mitigating the worries raised by Mitchell regarding the devaluation of attribution. The fact that photographers care so much about maintaining recognised authorship of their own works in the digital realm as much as the physical, despite predictions to the contrary, is telling of their attitude to their art – they (rightly) fear their aesthetic intention being misrepresented, a fate that previously only befell painters posthumously by virtue of successful forgeries polluting the historical account of their artistic style. This adds to the empirical evidence of photography as an aesthetically significant activity, the sum of multiple performances of which is worth more than its individual fruits.

In contrast to the example of Sherrie Levine given above, the technical act of photography is has often been used to produce copies with no artistic intention (in the photographic act itself, at least), including to produce forgeries of mechanical prints. [Kurz, Fakes, p.111] Then, at the risk of agreeing with Scruton, we must ask: is intention relevant to the act of photography? Beardsley states that “forgery is of necessity an intentional action,” [Beardsley, Notes on Forgery, p.225] but he is referring to the act of deception rather than of producing the image. If we accept that the intentional arrangement of a scene is part of the act of photography, we can ask some interesting questions about attribution of responsibility for a photograph’s contents; If a professional model has intentionally selected her look, her clothes, the location, background, pose, and perhaps even the lighting in her own studio, then how much of the credit for the photograph can be attributed to the photographer? Common sense would suggest it is a collaboration, but common parlance implies one person intentionally “took” the photograph, and is hence the photographer – he who performs the act of photography, by implication, in its entirety (despite Scruton’s insistence that we are just appreciating the model, we would still say “nice photo” to the photographer). What if the model sets up every aspect of the shot however, and merely asks a passer-by (with no artistic intention, and no power to realise it if they had any), to release the shutter? At which point does our attribution of credit slide from the photographer to the model? Now, what if the model had set the entire scene up by accident, having intended to merely tidy the room instead, and the passer-by experiences a stunning urge to aesthetic expression which is fulfilled by the scene before him. He only has to push the shutter button. I would argue that common sense suggests he still could not take credit for that photograph. Therefore intention, if not irrelevant, plays very little part in the attribution of credit for a photograph that is not entirely under one individual’s control (contrast this to a large-budget film, which is primarily attributed to the director although very little of the final work may be through his intention).

This brings us on to the question of the relationship between authorship and possession of a work. With most artwork, the former generally implies the latter – the difference is, with autographic works it seems always to be possible to lose the latter and keep the former (selling a painting, for instance). Technically it is, in one way or another, possible to renounce one’s rights to one’s own creation with all forms of art. However, selling a musical score or poem does not require one to lose it. Photography presents an interesting challenge to this categorisation. Assuming we agree the photographer is the author of the photograph, he can sell prints and even negatives but keep his rights to the image. Alternatively he can sell his rights, but still keep and enjoy the image in its full glory as a print, which a painter cannot do. Moreover, he can (and is sometimes required to) lose his rights over the image, but may maintain authorship – for instance, he must place a photograph in the public domain before he may upload it to Wikipedia (in the interests of avoiding copyright infringement), but his name will still be associated with the image, and of course he may keep the original digital file. He may permit the appropriation of his image by other artists without affecting the uses he may have for it.


Plate 24. Digital photograph by Eugene Hopkinson, 2005

Plate 25. Digital painting by online artist alias “moyan”, 2006

Not all artistic appropriation is malicious. Although rare in photography, beyond the well known example of Sherrie Levine cited above, respectful appropriation is not uncommon in other visual arts. One extreme example is Mike Bidlo [Conklin, Art Crime, pp.51-52]) who paints skewed versions of Picasso’s, Pollock’s, Mondrian’s and other well-known paintings. Painting from (and in the early days of photography, directly on) photographs is not uncommon. An interesting example of appropriation in the digital image world can be seen in plates 24 and 25, a case where the photographer was approached by a digital artist and asked for permission to carry out the digital painting of the photograph. The artist has clearly appropriated the image into her own style with representational control over details, yet the composition, framing and lighting are due to the photographer. Is the painting then an additional stage of the photograph, perhaps a particular performance of the score contained within the digital photograph? Yet the painting is signed by the digital artist (an interesting example of a digital watermark serving the same function as a traditional painted signature), and bears no marks (visible or purely digital) of its photographic provenance. Like a performance, no two paintings from the same photograph would be alike. Yet the painting is in the same (digital) notation as the photograph, and incapable of being copied, the same as a music score (only new instances of the same work can be created). How many stages does the painting have? How many stages does the photograph now have, if the painting is a further stage? Are copies, reprints and further appropriations of the painting also each separate stages of the photograph? At which point would a new original work arise, if at all? Is it at all possible to track the autographic and allographic status of the work through all these stages? Surely it cannot be neither, as Goodman’s only example of such a work is music in non-standard notation [Goodman, Art and Authenticity, pp.102-103] – if anything, this example is a direct opposite (the notation is standard but the content is not). These questions show the limitations of using Goodman’s stages to tell us anything useful about the nature of photography.


In summary, we have defined the act of photography as an overall group of activities comprising but not limited to selection and possible arrangement of subject matter and lighting, the operation of a camera to manipulate and eventually record an image, manual manipulation (either physical, digital or both) and eventual display of that image. In the ontology of art, a photograph is intrinsically autographic, but many aspects are allographic in nature beyond the mere notation-following performance of previously prescribed parts of the photography process. The act of taking a photograph also has an indeterminate number of stages, that is potentially extendable backward in time from the point of exposure as well as forward indefinitely after the event, at least in the digital realm. This suggests we must either split what we know as photography into a bundle of mini-arts (i.e. scene choosing, focusing, print making, digital editing, digital display) or abandon Goodman’s thesis that an artwork being autographic or allographic makes its parent art autographic or allographic respectively. Individual performances of the act of photography need not necessarily be either intentional or representational, but through many performances of the act, a photographer may build an artistic style capable of aesthetically significant expression. There is no rigid way to attribute responsibility (with regard to intention) for a photograph’s content without witnessing a photographer’s style through a sufficient sample of appropriate images, but it would be a mistake to forget the possibility (perhaps even necessity) of attribution (not based on intention) when this is absent. Mitchell is premature in declaring the extinction of value in authorship with digital photography, but instead the possibility of originality while avoiding cliché (either producing something stylistically original, recognising a work in a truly original style, or intentionally impinging on someone else’s original style) is greatly impaired for the reasons he gives. His subtitle heralding the arrival of a “post-photographic era” overshoots the mark, but perhaps declaring a “post-originative era” is more appropriate.

Eugene Hopkinson

Eugene Hopkinson

Director of the VoxelStorm indie gamedev studio, C++ programmer, photographer, alumnus of philosophy at University of Edinburgh, regular at Young Mensa North pub events.

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