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Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Clone Is Not A Four Letter Word

In some circles, clone is considered a dirty word. I am, of course, referring to Photoshop’s clone tool. There seems to be several camps, or schools of thought, regarding this issue.

On the one hand, there are photographers such as Stephen Johnson whose philosophy is not to make any changes whatsoever to a scene after the photograph is taken. In one interview, he mentioned that he hadn’t noticed a piece of garbage (as I recall, it was a paper cup or soda can) that was in an image of his that ultimately became the cover shot for one of his books. His publisher asked him to remove the relatively small piece of trash and he refused to do so. Though I would not have had a problem with cloning the item out of the image, I respect his decision not to and, moreover, am a great admirer of his. I just don’t carry the same philosophy when it comes to cloning.

On the other hand, there are those who would clone things, both alive and dead, in and out of an image without so much as a second thought. This type of cloning could result in an image that is beyond the realm of reality, the classic example being that of cloning a polar bear into a rain forest.

Then there is the middle ground, which is where I personally stand. What exactly is middle ground to me….I guess therein lies the rub. What is middle for me might be too much to one side or the other for someone else. I recognize that it really shouldn’t matter to anyone else exactly where I stand, but I do think it is important for each individual to give this some thought and determine exactly where it is that they stand.

Before elaborating on my specific thoughts, I have a confession to make. This is the image I used in yesterday’s blog entry:

Copyright Howard Grill

Here is what it looked like before I used the clone tool:

Copyright Howard Grill

It may not be very obvious in the small image as seen on a web page, but there is a fallen tree in the water that I cloned out. It appears more prominent on a large print. There had been a storm the night before this image was taken. I had been on a workshop at the time, and when we arrived at the scene our leader told us that he had never seen a tree in the water there before, despite having been at this particular location many times. He thought it had probably fallen during the previous night’s storm and would likely be washed away within a few weeks. To me, the tree was a clear distraction that hampered the image. I cloned it out. I felt comfortable doing so. I don’t believe it changed the meaning of the image. If one went to the same location today or, for that matter, the day before the photograph was taken, the tree would not be an issue.....it simply wouldn’t be there.

I believe that we should all think about where we stand on this. Don’t get me wrong. The point of this post is not to try to convince anyone what side of the line they should stand on, but merely that they should think about the reasons that lead them to stand where they do.

Here are my personal opinions. I reserve the right to think through them again and change my mind. I think this can be an ongoing thought process.

1) No changes to the scene should be made at all, in any way whatsoever, if the image is to be used for photojournalistic or scientific research purposes. These uses of an image, in my mind, are not art and demand complete accuracy. Such uses carry with them an implicit ‘guarantee’ from the photographer that the image represents complete truth, within the bounds that a ‘straight’ photograph allows.

2) If the photograph is being used as art, and if the alterations made to the scene do not change the meaning of the image, I personally have no qualms with manipulation. Of course, one can then get into arguments regarding whether a specific alteration does or does not change meaning. Who makes that decision?

3) If the photograph is being used as art, and if the alterations do change the meaning of the image, I believe there should be a clear indication that the image was altered. I have no personal issue with making such changes but do think it should be clear that there is a component of the image that is not ‘real’. The polar bear in the rain forest would fit this category. Others, of course, would argue that if the photographer has not made a claim that the image is ‘real’ it is not his/her fault that viewers assume that it is.

4) If the image is of wildlife in captivity, I believe that the fact that the animal was captive should be indicated. Even though the meaning of the scene may not be altered and the image is being used as art and not documentary, there is a real chance that it might ultimately be used to try and understand actual habitat or behavior that exists in the wild. Again, I don’t mean to imply that game farms or zoos should not be used as a source of images, only that it should be clear if they were.

This can’t possibly cover each and every possibility. The middle ground is far too large. What about Art Wolfe cloning an extra zebra or two into his now controversial image that serves as the cover for his book ‘Migrations’? It didn’t change the meaning of a herd of zebras. The book clearly stated that there was some digital manipulation (that is my understanding, I don’t personally own it). Why the big hubbub? There is no right answer, only shades of gray.

I believe that the best we can do is to give careful thought to the issue. The fact that such changes can be made might well be lamented by many, but the genie is out of the bottle and it’s not going back.