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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Timothy Roper's picture

Plus, he and others also used lens filters. For black and white, they change the natural tones to something unnatural. Sometimes, like with "Monolith," I think he took it too far (as least the versions I've seen), making the scene look too unnatural. But as an artist, that was his prerogative. And then of course there's infrared film...

Douglas Goodhill's picture

There is a lecture by John Szarkowski about Ansel Adams that is worth listening to. When I discovered AA as an art student in the early 70s, his work dominated my photography. After discovering other 'members' of f64 I felt he lacked a depth to his creativity. Szarkowski awakened my respect for his work by breaking it into 3 periods, with a majority of his important work done in the first third, and little in the second and none in the third, and he felt his reprinting in the contrasty dramatic style was dissapointing at best. I hope I'm not coloring his lecture in any way. As far as technique no one surpasses Adams because it is both impecable, and also done with complete understanding of eerything. I personally learned view camera technique from my dad, and despite understanding the zone system I'm more of an incident kind of guy, and still carry around a Sinar.

David Pavlich's picture

This is one of Mr. Adams' best shots, yet it has little resemblance of the actual shot. It is Adams' interpretation of the scene and took him a LOT of time in the dark room to achieve it. Now, define 'straight photography'.

Timothy Roper's picture

Oh, and while we're at it, let's not forget cross-processing of C41/E6 film. It was very popular at some point (1980s maybe) and still used by some. And then there was bleach bypass, for a washed-out, gritty look. "Straight" photography that was not. But it sure looks cool, even today.

Kirk Darling's picture

For example, my avatar was done in 1975, starting with a Kodachrome original, copied several times on Ektachrome on a Honeywell Repronar and various filters, processed in Kodacolor chemistry, different versions selected and sandwiched, then copied again on the Repronar.

PETER Adye's picture

"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." The writer makes a sweeping statement about what we all see. Most of us see different things, coloured by our imagination, our creativity. Photography is an art form not simply a quest for the accurate reproduction of reality -- what is reality? The debate could be endless!

Eric Robinson's picture

You may think its dead, but others think its alive and well, such is the futility of believing an opinion is the truth.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Indeed!

iris-imaging's picture

Straight photography will end when narcissism and sex end. I have grown to prefer the term imaging over photography but I still, say I am a photographer. Many of the early Photoshop filters came from creative film and darkroom techniques made simple, thanks to the computer. I sometimes used a paintbrush and spray bottles in my darkroom printing, but it was still on "photographic paper", so now I can do the same with a phone PC, and printer.

Using words like truth and honesty in photography as something was carved in stone is funny. I want to vomit when I hear that photojournalism is about truth and honesty. Photography is a medium that is fun to play with if you can get paid for being creative all the more fun.

Eric Robinson's picture

After my last post Ive been thinking about the question a bit more and have this opinion which I would like to share.
I don't think that any one with a camera who calls themselves a photographer takes what could be termed a straight image because of photographer's will or style?.
Today is my Grandson's birthday, he is seven. As we are still very much restricted where we can go, due to lockdown, and who we can mix with I sent a photo I took of him last year which had a bit of the Pre-Raphalite about it. He wears, or wore this hair very long. While he is who he is I decided to take a photograph at a moment that I felt his expression and the overall composition fitted my inbuilt aesthetic I decided to use that day. From the many version of that 'truth' I took that day I culled the ones that failed to meet my criteria and farther enhanced my own photographic will by picking particular images that made my grade processing in a way to farther enhance the aesthetic I was aiming for. While it was a picture of him it had my will imposed on it to a great extent. His Grandmother also sent a picture of him dressed up as Harry Potter, very much a record shot. I would imagine he would much prefer his Grandmothers shot over mine as that image of him dressed as Harry Potter would fit more with his own perception of himself rather than the romantic 19th century look I imposed on him. The difference had nothing to do with any juice, it had all to do with photographic intent. A non-photographer will tend to take what could be termed record shots or straight images if you like while a photographer will always bend the situation to meet their own aesthetic goals. There will always be room for both.
Check out the work of Jane Bown a most extraordinary woman and photographer, her will or style is stamped on all her images.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Bown,
I don't think you could call her images straight images due to what her incredible photographic will or style imposed on them.
Ive often encountered problems when photographing younger women!.....not for the reasons you are thinking! On the whole they, at least, initially don't like the images I make of them as they are too far removed from how they see themselves. My photographic will or style to their eyes produces results that they are just not used to seeing. Just as Adams re-created the B@W truth with his use of filters it can also be done with nothing more than photographic will power or the imposition of a style. The very same camera in the hand of a photographer will produce very different results from those wielded by a non photographer. The resulting shots from both will be valid. Possibly the question should be: Is there a place for photographers who shoot like non-photographers?

Eric Robinson's picture

I also take back what I said earlier in that any question that gets you thinking about what photography is can only be a good question.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

The term “straight photography” was popularized by critic Sadakichi Hartmann, who often wrote for Camera Work. In a 1904 article titled “A Plea for Straight Photography,” Hartmann bemoaned the excessive handwork and painterly flourishes that characterized much of what he saw in Pictorialist photography, arguing, “We expect an etching to look like an etching, and a lithograph to look like a lithograph, why then should not a photographic print look like a photographic print?” (From “A Plea for Straight Photography,” American Amateur Photographer 16 (Mar. 1904) - This is copied from the Art Institute of Chicago; Alfred Stieglitz Collection

David Medeiros's picture

There's still plenty of folks in landscape and nature photography who I call "literalists". They seem to only be interested in showing us what was there, not what they felt or envisioned and even the slightest tuning up after the fact is too much. I am not into heavy image manipulation, but aside from documentary work, I see little value in strict literal image taking. It's like looking at slightly better than normal family vacation pics. Or worse, looking at a contact sheet.

As for this "Oddly, straight photography emerged (as a labeled entity) in response to pictorialism, and not the other way around" I think you have it exactly backwards, and you even seem to say as much in your follow up this sentence. Pictorialism and heavy manipulation where reactions to the rigid scientific focus of photography as it first emerged. Pictorialism followed to challenge that and I would argue today's version of straight and literal photography are in response to pictorialism.

Kirk Darling's picture

I would not say that "rigid scientific" was ever a specific focus of photography, but a simple physical fact of the initial capabilities of the process. Almost immediately, photographers were manipulating reality, even if that merely amounted to re-arranging their subjects before exposure (such as Matthew Brady did on US Civil War battlefields).

Pictorialism arose from art criticism that photography could never be more than an artless, mechanical process, and it arose as soon as the creation of an internegative process made it possible. But pictorialism also created a nearly immediate backlash that the mechanical process was photography at its unique purest.

So this is not by any means a new argument. The negative made a departure from "straight photography" possible, and many photographers took advantage of it, while others stuck with "straight photography."

A hundred years later...same debate.

Michael Axel's picture

Can't we just all get along? I don't see the photo world as one or the other, or even in transition. It's often been about some photographers pushing the limits. Pete Turner comes to mind, but I know it has been that way since the beginning.

I believe the manipulated image will be a key focus in coming years as we progress through the NFT/block chain phase of collecting.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I agree, the manipulated image is a way for photographers to try and stand apart. It will only increase as the quantity of photographs increases, which is to say exponentially.

Sam Sims's picture

You say those light and shadow photos (actually called exposing for the highlights) are made on the computer but I can tell you photographers are creating those in camera at the time they shoot the pictures and is dead easy to do. I certainly do and have never recreated those shadows on the computer. This sort of photo can be created without the need for any post processing but it is definitely a case where the camera is manipulating the scene because the image we get is not something that is is seen with the naked eye.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Yes, you can edit in-camera by underexposing. I get it. I've been a street photographer for 15 years and have judged many thousands of street photographs in competitions around the world. FYI, we call them light and shadow photos among judges -- which is somewhat derogatory because we are tired of seeing so many of them.

Jan Holler's picture

If you look at the whole chain from taking a photo to presenting it to your eyes, you can see what a huge effort has been made for decades and is still being made to make chemicals on paper (or RGB patterns on screen) look like real. It's about dynamic range and color space, and ultimately about meeting the subjective reception by the human eye on paper or a screen. It is at least a threefold conversion: light from real objects comes to the sensor, is converted by the raw processor, and is displayed on the paper or screen. The degeneration of information in color space or dynamic range is severe.

The digital age allows much better to adapt reality as reality to the human eye. That is, it has never been easier to get real photos (if you want to), but it has also never been easier to manipulate images.
"Straight" (better call it pure) photography is not dead, quite the opposite.

PS: You might want to take a look at "darktable" and its recent development: RGB color space modules. It allows to keep as much information from the RAW file in the whole process as it is possible (by today's standards).

Ed Wojtaszek's picture

When I need a break from the overly edited stuff to cheer myself up, I go to https://www.magnumphotos.com/. While Magnum has many examples of editing, there are also many photographers who hew more toward the straight side. There are lots of street, documentary, and journalist photographers out there who capture and present the truth.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I agree ed, street and documentary are the last holdouts ..... although, even street is becoming rather manipulated, especially the stuff we see "celebrated" on the net.

jim hughes's picture

Hard to define "straight", but we still know it when we see it.

IMHO, we can do lots of things to an image, but to be a "real photograph" it has to look like something that could have been seen by an actual eye at a particular time and place. Maybe not an unaided human eye, with its limitations of range, contrast and focus - but there's a feeling you get that a scene is real, you could have actually been there. It's in some sense a capture.

I couldn't agree more that big time photography is increasingly about Photoshop. And even beyond that - we're cranking up the algorithms and basically compositing images, painting in detail and texture drawn from big data banks.

I recently took a run at a high profile "curated" photography site, and as I expected (no, really) I went nowhere and found it basically unmotivating. The Photoshopping there is so deep and pervasive that you might as well be discussing snow with the Innuit. Some posters here might get a laugh from my blog post on this experience:
https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2021/03/18/my-1x-com-experience/

David Pavlich's picture

I'd never heard of 1x, so I just took a brief look. There's some very nice work there and yes, some stuff that had a lot of extra work, but, the site is right up front with the Art thing. A lot of it fits with my most hated conversion of an adjective to a noun, 'creative' or 'creatives'.

What people like changes. What 'straight' photography was 20 years ago is different than what straight is today. I'm an official geezer and I can tell you that I like what we can do to a photo today. But I look at it as something to enjoy and on the financial side, something that supports my photography addiction. :-) A lot of my 'unstraight' prints sell quite well. ;-)

jim hughes's picture

In my blog post I tried to be fair... but couldn't resist skewering them a bit. Like I said, all the work there is high quality, but that in itself isn't enough to make me like it. A lot of it is pretty far over the top IMHO, at least to my taste.

To be fair, the site has been running for a long time, there will inevitably be a lot of similar work over the years.

anthony marsh's picture

For one thing some film photographers did use VASELINE, perhaps not on lenses rather on filters to achieve the dreamy look. Straight photography is still valid. As for competitions I believe that it would be far more fair and equitable to have digital and film categories. A film photographer more often than not has one frame to capture a photo whereas digital photographers might have hundreds of images from which to choose the "one". Famous photographer GEORGE GIMBEL put it quite succinctly when he referred to hundreds or thousands of digital actuations as DIGITAL DIAHREEA.

Timothy Roper's picture

And here's a quote from a 1938 letter from Alfred Stieglitz to Ed Weston:

"Yes, there seems to be millions on millions of photographers and billions of photographs made annually, but how rare a really fine photograph seems to be. ‘Interesting’ shots. It’s a pathetic situation—so little vision. So little true seeing."

Maybe the pathetic situation is worse with digital, but film diarrhea existed just the same.

Terry Waggoner's picture

So over manipulated analog imagery should be referred to as "Film Flatulence"............... ;)

Carlos Cardona's picture

There's a HUGE problem with this sentence: "Will there continue to be any value in a photograph that simply reproduces reality as it was seen?" Do you KNOW HOW WE SEE? Yet you assume that the camera lens sees how we see it, and can reproduce it, as "it was seen", but it DOES NOT! We see sharp in the middle surrounded by very blurry outside the center. To see something in detail, we have to turn our heads to put that in the center of our vision. In other words, "what we see" is actually A LENSBABY SHOT! A photo with edge to edge sharpness is a PICTORIAL IMAGE, an invention of the photographer, not at all "what we see". Now that you realize this you have to rewrite your entire article, perhaps with a less "click-baity" title?

Here's a quote from "Decoding Divinci" (on PBS), spoken by an art teacher: ""The problem often with photographic images we see is that there’s so much detail we don’t get the broader effect. We see life very much out of focus, we glance.” So only a Lensbaby can reproduce "what you saw". A sharp, unedited image was recently called "a record shot", by one of our judges, (merely a record of what was there), a disparaging of that type of "I'm too lazy to edit" photo!

Kirk Darling's picture

Well, if we consider that "seeing" involves both the eye and the brain, I'd argue that we "see" everything in super dynamic range and all in focus--with everything we pay attention to in our field of view. The moment we pay attention to any one thing, that thing snaps into clarity.

But we only pay attention to one thing at a time, so we use various methods to make that happen in photographs, such as with composition, for the "subject" of our photography.

One of the weaknesses of "straight photography" in the hands of the inexperienced is the inability to guide the viewer's eye to pay attention to just that one thing--or specific things--in the field of view of the photograph in the way the photographer intends. Or worse, the photographer has no intention at all.

Timothy Roper's picture

That's it in a nutshell. And not just for photography. I had a drawing and painting instructor years ago who would constantly tell us, even when drawing a nude figure, we needed to have a "center of interest" as he called it. The hands, the neck--something. You don't just draw a nude figure--there has to be a purpose to it, and one that the viewer will be able to discern and enjoy. He did loathe photography, and maybe it was because so much of what he saw lacked this crucial element.