A few days ago, two things came together that seemed to demand of me a thoughtful response.
First, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City opened an exhibit, "Faking It: Life Before Photoshop." It is a fascinating exploration of the many 'manipulations' that photographers have explored since the advent of photography - yes, there was HDR before Photomatix, dodging and burning, composite photographs. The website is well worth a visit or even better, take in the exhibit should you find yourself in New York.
The second event was a conversation with a friend about my excitement over some techniques I am learning to use and master, how it is opening up a whole world of possibilities that I can only imagine right now. As you might guess, she could not share my excitement - in fact, she had some very strong objections, related primarily to the ethics of manipulating a photograph. I found myself explaining then justifying, stopping just short of apologizing. I mentioned the exhibit at the Met, how there is a long, historical tradition of photographers, great photographers, well respected, who made similar changes to their images, if in a wet darkroom rather than on a computer. She remained unconvinced - photographs should not be manipulated in this way. Paintings, sure - photographs should be a faithful representation of what is 'real.'
Neither of us changed the mind of the other. Not until later did I realize why this question persists, why the argument is never settled - it is a bogus issue, a red herring if you will. And appeals to historical precedents only obscure the issue even more. Remember there was a time when folks believed the world was flat.
The question, as old as photography itself, is - can photography be both an artistic and documentary medium? The answer to that, to my mind, is obvious - yes. And would the methods used be different depending on the final goal? Again, yes; not necessarily, but certainly possible.
Is this image manipulated? You bet - I wouldn't be doing my work as an artist if it wasn't. My goal as an artist is to produce photographs that are evocative and expressive, beautiful in their way, that hopefully generate some response in the viewer. And the next time this discussion comes up - and you know it will - I will remember to make the question explicit, art or documentary. You certainly are not required to like or even understand my art - and I am not required to apologize or justify it.