Martha Rosler – Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations: Some Considerations

After pulling apart my symposium structure, I identified with the help of Liz Wells’ book Photography a Critical Introduction, that Martha Rosler and her writings on manipulation and simulation would give me an interesting alternative angle on photo manipulation that I could contrast against Fred Ritchin. Martha Rosler has been mentioned to me before in passing however it took that self discovery to really identify where she could really feature in my research paper; it often takes that journey of investigation for me to be able to see the connections.

Rosler begins by identifying the defining question behind this paper; the apparent danger to photographic “truth” from computer manipulation. Historic photography is full of staging, we are able to recognise this aesthetic and characterise it with the history that we know, for example we might say that an image looks “Victorian” because of the manner in which the specific portrait was taken.  Photography itself is “mutable”, that is subject to change and in the photographic image we have seen instances where space and time itself have been mutated. The characteristics of the image-making have been identified as ‘post industrial’, where sound, film and video have contributed to the collapse the believable world in imagery. Rosler proposed that the ability of photography is often overlooked because it is so integrated in our society despite technology giving it the power  to alter time and space. Regardless of this power, Rosler maintains that the truth telling power of photography hasn’t necessarily been “used up”, aspects of the image can be manipulated in terms of content; agreeing with practitioners such as David Campbell when professing that context is the determining factor in the image. In extension to this there are different types of context: linguistic context in the form of captions or accompanying text and visual content which encompasses powers such as sequencing, framing and editing actions.

Rosler states that photography and objectivity is a relatively modern notion, the “straight” or candid photography practised by photographers like Cartier Bresson have ultimately been brought about by the inclusion of the photograph in reportage. However the truth telling nature of photography is only a small part of the genre, it the influential fact that the published reportage image is seen by the masses because the content is deemed to be in the public interest. The artistic practise of photography is completely different and in addition those who practise “deceptive” manipulation are another form altogether. It has been seen that fabricated or staged images are a major issue in war photography; the speculations around Robert Capa and Joe Rosenthal are enough to support this concept. The introduction of manipulation in news imagery began in early newsreels where the event was restaged and fabricated for a photograph in order to give a visual representation of the event. In addition to this the manipulation seen in the commercial industry, despite looking completely different from reality, have established a global acceptance of photographic manipulation in imagery. Perhaps it is this acceptance from society that enables or perhaps encourages news publications to manipulate the image in order to become aesthetically pleasing or appropriate for their publication.

Manipulation didn’t become publicly available until the 1990’s with Adobe releasing their first version of Photoshop; in the 1980’s the market for manipulation was still relatively niche. It was the first issue of the Kodak magazine “Studio Light” that featured “special effects” photography from practitioners such as Michael Radencich. However there was a stress on believability, the word “photography” was no longer used and replaced by the term “image production”. It is this redefinition of image-making that spared Kodak from discussions about photographic truth because they had made it clear that their images were not produced to be believable. It was the National Geographic in February 1982 that seemingly betrayed its readers by manipulating the images of the pyramids in order to fit the portrait composition of their article. Rosler speculates that as the pyramids are meant to the symbol of immutability; are we destroying their history by moving them? In addition to this example in April of 1982 National Geographic manipulated another cover by importing an emblem from another image.

The use of computerised technology coverts the image into tiny pixels; this term itself is a neologism for “picture elements”. These new terms and definitions could perhaps reference the conceptual genre of photography where the elements of the pictorial image are manipulated to achieve a new aesthetic. However this doesn’t necessarily mean that digital news imagery should be subject to the same methods of editing as a conceptual photographer would. In addition to this, digital editing is just one aspect of manipulating imagery, physical montage and staged imagery are also aspects. We as photographers must address which is the most destructive and perhaps establish parameters for the use of each in different genres of photography? Or does any manipulation mean the end of “photographs as evidence”? In journalism certainly the parameters of evidential imagery have always been unclear and subject to change, however this could continue with the incorporation of digitising technology. Rosler proposes that photojournalists could potentially reach a form of “interpretive representation”, where content and meaning and literally fabricated. In contrast, art photography defines itself by establishing and stressing a distance between the recording apparatus and the conceptual process of manipulation. Perhaps in photojournalism there needs to be a strict parameter in which an evidential photograph can fall in terms of manipulation, beyond which it can’t be characterised as a newsworthy image. However who would be the organisation to set these rules?

In addition to the content, the ownership of the image is another key concept identified by Rosler. With the reduction of the photograph to digital information the notion of ownership is lost, especially in online environments where the ideology of hackerism dictates that information should be free. Rosler exposes that most newspaper of size have “Scitex-type technology” which increases the likelihood of decisions against the ethics of photojournalism simply because the ease at which it can happen. The main use of this technology is to make small changes such as dodging and burning however in some cases now the photo-editor makes decisions against the photographers decisions in relation to aspects like cropping. Rosler states that W. Eugene Smith nearly quite ‘Life’ magazine twice because his photographers were being in a way that was against his wishes as an image-maker. In extension there appears to be no “picture editors” on T.V and as a result of this, manipulation is a common and accepted practise. The manipulation of imagery to please the viewers aesthetically has caused a decrease in distance between the supposedly legitimate media and the tabloid as both appear to be producing content to sell rather than to inform on important issues; an issue that was also identified by Fred Ritchin.

The concept of changing images for the sake of “conceptual accuracy” and “aesthetic pleasure” has been addressed by many photojournalists and picture editors who are now seeking assurance that this will not happen with their content. However there is also an awareness that distortion and misuse is a part of photographic history, a simple misrepresentation of a photograph can occur when it is taken out of context. This is a particularly prominent concept seen in war and political photography which should be addressed and negotiated. Susan Sontag focused on the political manipulation carried about by Chinese authorities to remove Chiang Ching from a widely seen image of Mao on the Long March however Rolser proposes that in such an authoritarian society perhaps the society places less trust in images than people in Western culture. In order to find and prove that an image has been manipulated, in the past the original negative has been sourced and viewed; however in digital photography this process can’t happen. There are only copies of information, and in some cases the camera can transmit straight to a computer, bypassing the back of the camera altogether; Rosler proposed that perhaps this means the technician has more control over the digital image than original photographer.

Manipulated images have been accepted into our culture, however if they are going to be included by photographers in all genres Rosler states that there needs to be a point made about reality and the manipulated imagery. Perhaps in the form of a heavily manipulated image that evidences that an image alone can’t “tell the truth”, the concept of the fact itself is a social construction. Rosler explores that digitisation techniques themselves aren’t destructive, in other fields they have contributed to a new form of representation that can benefit society such as CAT scans and ultrasounds in medicine. In the home market they have allowed for a new precision and applications have been made that allow for a complete simulation of an environment. Complex digital simulation is called “virtual reality”, a term founded by Jaron Lanier which refers to the environment meant to make the participant completely immersed in another time, place or even in the presence of another person.

Computer simulation is a technique employed heavily by the military, Rosler explores the fact that they are investigating advanced forms of virtual reality in terms of training their recruits through flight simulation. In addition to this computer animation has demonstrated a capacity to combine photography and drawn imagery to produce a representation of visual reality, Rosler quoted Daniel Thalmann who speculated “you won’t need real people anymore … Actors could be out of a job”. Rosler extends this speculated by questioning Thalmann’s use of the wording “real people”, for in cinema we don’t see a portrayal of that person, we see their representation of a different character. The development of the digital image-processing will almost certainly affect the practise of those working with still images however there is a wider market for computerisation beyond the parameters of photography; it has already been incorporated in the world of business, graphics and T.V. However there are some detrimental effects of developed machinery in the industrial world, Barbara Garson speculated that word processing has effectively deskilled the workers to just performing repetitive tasks. Accompanying this are illnesses and injuries associated with computerisation such as repetitive strain injury, problems with posture and eye problems from continuous use of screens.Theories from Baudrillard and McLuhan surround the developing culture of signs and imagery; these complemented and perhaps opposed by the theorists demoting the mass image culture created such as Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord.

Rosler progresses by detailing the 1992 United Nationals Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) proposed attempt to photograph 200 “cultural and natural” wonders and archive the images, making them publicly available through digital transmission. This project is called Project Patrimione and was carried out in 2002 backed by the La Caixa Foundation with Kodak, France telecom and Gamma Photo Agency supplying the supporting technology. The aim of this project was to make images of treasures before they are damaged further however Rosler questions the value that these photographs would hold, what the idea of capturing and transmitting content is in the digital age. In the age of exploration, the notion of recording and distributing images of new environments was commonplace; however when we have already discovered them, what place will they have in our society? Rosler explains that image production and products will soon be available from markets, the audience will have multiple copies and forms available to them such as hard copies or screen images.

In summary, the original ethos “a photograph will be true unless proven otherwise” is outdated. The public are so used to fragmented data and information in flux that believability in imagery is not a given anymore. Stripping the evidential status from photography is expected to have detrimental effects such as diminishing the public circulation of factual content. It has been identified by Rosler that the practise of producing documentary images is not enough to inform or provoke a response from the public. Without a discussion or action around the context and meaning of the imagery, there can be no progression or change. Rosler proposes new questions and discussions, not on whether the image should be manipulated but how they should be and when photography should be used “straight” to tell the truth. However increasing commercialisation has blurred the parameters between “objective evidence, informed knowledge, prejudicial opinion and sheer fiction”.

The concept of sensationalism has also been introduced in relation to photographic truth. It is an extremely popular concept for the mass viewer base therefore the temptation for publications is to produce content that satisfies this idea. The journalism produced in this nature however can’t be depended  upon or indeed defended when questioned.

Rosler identifies that in war, it is really important to control images, this control over representation and information must be amplified to operate in the growing visual culture. However Rosler also notes that advances in digitisation and computer technology will continue to change the forms of information and the methods in which they are delivered. As a consequence, photography will also continue to change to adapt. The field is already becoming monopolised, internationalized and encrypted, the results of which could control the photographer, make the T.V obsolete and increase the vulnerability.

The key concept is to identify the context in which certain imagery should be used and interpreted, as there is already a pessimism about post-structural photography and it’s ability to convey a notion of “truth”. Rosler notes that the photograph as evidence appears to have had a short history, subject to discussion and attack. The reduction in this view is perhaps due to the reduced naivety of the audience, with the danger of the audience choosing fantasy over any evidence presented. Context is key when addressing social meanings and perception; they are not defined by the technology used to examine them but the wider ideologies that surround them.

To finish, Rosler poses the question, do we need to reinvest in “believability” in photography? Perhaps we should concentrate our efforts on the widening rich/poor gap which has been increased by the emergence of the information highway. Rosler suggests that we could be vulnerable to a transition from democracy to a demagogic rule (a person or organisation gaining power through popularity). These could be the challenges to our society. not the structure or nature of the photographic image.



This offers a completely new perspective on manipulation that was definitely missing from my symposium. My initial plan was to try and oppose Ritchin with Mayes, but Mayes hasn’t really written on manipulation therefore I need to include Rosler in my paper to avoid the appearance of having a closed view. The combination Rosler and Ritchin will work well especially since they use the same visual example in the National Geographic over. This obvious overlap shouldn’t be ignored therefore I will definitely keep the Pyramids image in my presentation, I was previously a bit worried that I was choosing the obvious example. Rosler and Ritchin share the same concerns over the National Geographic presenting their manipulated image to the public with no notion that the image didn’t represent a visual truth. The key idea both Rosler and Ritchin agree on is that manipulation for the sake of aesthetic pleasure is a practise that should eliminated from photojournalism. Ritchin especially touches on this concept in his books, describing that we are manipulating the world to be in our own image.

Staged photography is another concept addressed by Rosler, it has been part of history in portraiture and has been seen in photojournalism. This could also be considered as another form of manipulation because the content depicted was effectively fabricated for the camera, regardless of the context behind it. This could have a place in my paper however with the restrictive word count, it may just have to be touched on in other blog posts.

Rosler has interesting views on manipulation as a whole; proposing that there is definitely a place for manipulation in photojournalism as techniques like photomontage can be used to great effect however the audience needs to be aware of it. She offered one example where the Kodak magazine ‘Studio Light’ used manipulation and published it but used the term ‘image-production’ instead of ‘photography’. In the case of the National Geographic the audience were unaware of the fabrication; it is this naivety that is the problem. However it could be considered that cases such as this have caused the audience to educate themselves and protect themselves against false content. Whether this is a good thing or not is yet to be decided as without fabrication there would be no need to question what we see on a daily basis.

Rosler believes that if manipulated photographs are going to be accepted then there needs to be a clear line drawn between conceptual (art) photography and photojournalism. Both the photographer and the audience also need to accept that a photograph alone can’t ‘tell the truth’, they provide mediated representations of the event.

She goes on to explore the world of computer simulation which is another area of fabrication but isn’t directly relevant to the concept I am commenting on. Certainly the future of photojournalism might contain immersion technology however this is an aspect I will only comment on if I have enough space in my word count. I can go on to make an additional blog post on the concept of immersion technology and photojournalism to supplement my research paper.


(Blog post image from


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s