ABOUT THAT ‘FAKE MOON’, OR AUTHENTICITY IN THE AGE OF INSTAGRAM

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There has been much discussion of the photo that won our “nighttime on the UWS” photo contest, much of it centered on the notion that the moon in the photo (above) did not actually look like that when the photographer snapped the photo. So we checked in with Ellen Cohen, who took the shot.

“Yes, the moon is added in, over the actual moon, as it is in several of the other entered photos,” Ellen wrote. “There is no way to get a shot like that otherwise due to perspective and distance.”

Being iPhone novices, we asked for a little more detail.

“The moon is dropped in through a photo app on my iPhone,” she told us. “It can be sized as you wish. It covers the actual moon that was positioned in the same spot.”

It “was used to enhance what I thought was already a pretty photo. Not really any different than Photoshopping which is standard these days…”

Scott Matthews, one of our favorite photographers and a judge in our photo contest weighed in:

My name is Scott Matthews. I’m an Upper West Sider, a photographer (http://turnstyle.com/photos/), a regular contributor to the West Side Rag (https://www.westsiderag.com/tag/photography), and I was asked to act as one of the judges for the Rag’s recent photo contest (https://www.westsiderag.com/2016/01/11/photo-contest).

And with the announcement of Ellen Cohen’s “Snowy winter’s night on Broadway” as winner
(https://www.westsiderag.com/2016/01/11/and-the-winner-of-our-photo-contest-is) — along with the sometimes heated discussion that followed — I wanted to share a few thoughts.

I should start by noting that I didn’t vote for the Cohen entry, a street scene with a large Moon in the upper-right corner. To my eye the Moon was added, a “photo collage” rather than a photograph. And for that reason, as I was making my selection, I disqualified it from my consideration.

However Cohen’s photo won the reader poll, and the Rag’s formula for selecting a winner gave points to both the judges’ selections as well as to the reader poll. Additionally, Eliane VanderBorght, one of my two fellow-judges chose Cohen’s picture her favorite.

So, Cohen was declared winner — and that decision has resulted in a fair amount of criticism from commenters.

“I am with everyone who is disappointed that Ellen Cohen’s photo got so much attention,” wrote AP. “Such a poor and obvious photoshop job.”

But I think we have an opportunity to consider how much “reality” to expect from photographs, especially in an age when just about every photograph — from casual Instagram posts to work by professionals — is subject to some degree of post-production editing.

So in the Instagram age, what constitutes “acceptable” modification?

For instance, I assume Karen Keating’s “Amsterdam Avenue snow squall” — the photograph that I (as well as fellow-judge Denton Taylor) chose as the winner is also “fake” — meaning: processed to look significantly different from the way the scene presumably looked to a human eye that night. (Editor’s Note: Karen tells us she doesn’t remember what apps or enhancements she may have used for “snow squall” but “I do tend to take images and work with various apps, the final result is usually something that blurs the look between painting and photography.”) However, to me, the “Amsterdam Avenue snow squall” processing was acceptable, whereas the addition of the Moon in Cohen’s “Snowy winter’s night on Broadway” lead me to disqualify it. But both images result from photo manipulation.

I suspect many of the readers who voted for Cohen’s may have done so under the incorrect expectation that it was “real.” I also assume Cohen did not intentionally intend to deceive; rather I believe she simply used the tools at hand to make her photograph nicer in her eyes. And if she was pleased with her finished photo, and if so many readers selected it as their favorite, does it necessarily have to be “real”? Is “I just liked it” not enough?

I spend a considerable amount of time processing my photos. For me, my intention is to enhance details that are already there. I explore the color and contrast. I crop. And I consider this a fundamental part of my photography. In the end my goal is to take a photographic source, modify it according to my personal sensibility, and hope to produce something that people have a reaction to. My hunch is Cohen had a similar intention.

So, yes, I disqualified Cohen’s photo not exactly because it was “fake” — but because, to my particular aesthetic, it wasn’t fake in a way that moved me, whereas Keating’s also-fake “Amsterdam Avenue snow squall” did move me.

Despite the controversy — perhaps even because the controversy provided an opportunity to have an interesting conversation — I cheer Ellen Cohen as well as her winning submission.

Scott also sent in a photo that he took (below) that was also “processed.” He explained why he did that:

This photo, for me, conveys the variety and unique humanity in each apartment. And some people may not see the residents of Frederick Douglass Housing Projects that way.

Anyhow, this photo is also processed — the color variation is amplified, the shading on front-facing and side-facing walls are equalized to tweak the sense of the geometry of the buildings.

Frederick Douglass Houses at Night (550)

Weigh in with your (thoughtful!) comments below.

ART, NEWS | 32 comments | permalink
    1. mj says:

      I believe that, in an age where photo enhancements are the norm,the contest would have to state that no enhancements or alterations would be allowed. Otherwise, it isn’t fair to cry for disqualification. As Scott states, it isn’t the use of the enhancement that bothers him; it’s the aesthetic result. That is what was legitimately being judged: the aesthetic result.

      • aw says:

        How do you define “enhancement”? Is cropping OK? How about resizing? Is it OK to “burn” or “dodge” to bring out a detail? Photography is manipulation and it’s simply not possible to avoid it.

    2. Vince says:

      Without credibility we have nothing.

    3. Elizabeth M. says:

      I entered a picture in the contest; El Dorado Towers at sundown. My picture was totally untouched, no filters or Photoshop etc. I don’t think it’s fair to compare an untouched picture with one that’s been enhanced in any way. Perhaps that should be specified in the rules. Photos should be judged on their own merit, not on how well the end result has been manipulated.

      • Mary says:

        I totally agree. This was essentially a photo montage that won, and not a photo. The prize should go to someone who submitted an unaltered, unenhanced photo.

    4. jezzie says:

      I think a way to solve this in the future is to ask the photographer to include the manipulation or photo-shopping which has been done to the pic. The only way for photographers to have a fair chance when being judged, is to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. There is certainly nothing wrong with enhancing a photograph, it’s fairly commonly done. But in a contest situation a full explanation of just what was done, what kind of filter, what kind of lense, what kind of enhancements exactly have been done. Only then can we judge properly.

    5. Joan Paylo says:

      OMG, I love the Douglass Houses foto! I’ll never look at them the same way again. Many lives, one complex.

      • Barbara Michalak says:

        A moving photo. I am struck by the fact that almost every room is lit,every apartment occupied. Unlike our many new ‘billionaires” apartments. It conveys a sense of many lives, lived in community. I would be depressed if I were to learn that some of the lighted windows had been added digitally.

        • I’m pleased to report that no windows were added. I just checked the file, it looks like it was shot at about 6:30pm on a Saturday night in December — so at a time when it would be dark early, and at a time when people would be home.

    6. Giovanni says:

      Before there was digital photography, there was manipulation in the darkroom with dodging and burning and multiple exposures, use of special paper grades and chemicals, and retouching to remove imperfections. A “bad” picture could be turned into a great picture by those who had the skill and imagination to bring an image to life. Digital photography is no different from film, except that now you don’t have to breathe in all those chemicals or have to get the smell off your hands for days.

      • Terry says:

        So very true. Long before the age of photoshop, my father, a professional photographer, would occasionally “sandwich” two negatives together to create a desired image. One print of the Manhattan skyline was enhanced by his addition of a full moon. Of course, his moon image was not as sharply focused as the moon in the contest winning photo, which I found glaring and distracting.

        BTW, the “fake moon” photo did NOT win the readers’ poll– “Silhouettes at Lincoln Center” by Irina Damjanovic garnered the most votes, and rightly so, in my view.

        • Giovanni says:

          We forget that Photoshop was based on all the manipulations a that photographers have been doing for years, it just made manipulation easier to do. Gordon Parks, who is regarded as one of the great photojournalists and worked for Life magazine, was a friend of my family’s. Gordon regularly staged what were supposed to be candid photos for the magazine, as did many photojournalists at the time, in order to tell a story. The photos are still great, and Life had no problem publishing them.

    7. Allison H. says:

      Perhaps there ought to be two awards: Reader’s Choice and Judges’ Pick. Or even two categories: Raw Imagery and Processed Photos. This way, maybe voters would feel more informed about how to choose.

    8. D-Rex says:

      She added a giant bright moon that did not exist, that is really sad…..
      Are the snow and taxi added too?
      Adjusting exposure and cropping are reasonable, but adding content?! Really need to have higher standards.
      Please throw out that B.S. “photograph”!

    9. FR33 says:

      Would that photo have won without the added moon? Probably not. It seems deceptive to just “drop a moon” onto a photo and not even disclose the alteration in a contest. Can we ask Steve Harvey to announce a different winner?

    10. ScooterStan says:

      Re: “There is no way to get a shot like that otherwise due to perspective and distance.”

      Sorry, but this “advanced amateur” photog begs to differ.

      With a REAL camera equipped with a REAL lens (i.e. NOT an iPhone) the REAL moon could have been included in that shot.

      Of course the moon then would have appeared slightly “soft”, as it would have been outside the sharply-focused-upon area.

      Trained photographers call this “Depth of Field”, and it is an essential concept that separates a PHOTOGRAPH from a SNAPSHOT, which is what iPhones take (yes, they do so well, but they are still snapshots, not “art photography”).

      Photo manipulation (called Post-Processing) is important, as Mr. Matthews great shot of the Douglass buildings demonstrates, but creating a composite (2 or more images added together) usually violates the rules of most photo contests.

    11. Ed says:

      As a professional photographer I looked at these photos several different ways. Yes, some were clearly manipulated and others weren’t. The World Press Organization has an annual “photographer of the year” award. In the world of press photography there is no manipulation of the image permitted with the exception of exposure and/or color balance. Increasingly people have been disqualified for violating the rules even for an insignificant infraction. I’m a commercial photographer and manipulation is generally part of most jobs I shoot and is widely accepted.
      With respect to this contest, lets face it, it is a local invitation for those who enjoy taking photos of our neighborhood. In the spirit of that celebration, rather than asking the photographer to supply metadata and layering history, the contest could simply be divided into two categories. One for “straight” photos and one for manipulated photos. In today’s world of digital, many people take as much pride in their computer skills as they do in their photo skills. I would only suggest that if a layered photo is submitted, all of the components be captured by that person.
      In many ways this debate has always been funny to me. If we were to apply manipulation to the world of painting, one could argue that da Vinci “manipulated” a blank canvas into the Mona Lisa. A silly analogy, maybe. But it does give one pause.
      That’s my two cents and in the spirit of total disclosure, I took this blank comment box and turned it into an opinion!

    12. Sean says:

      It’s all fake. Nothing is real anymore.

    13. Mike says:

      If you were seeking artistic content in an open competition then there’s nothing wrong with this photo. If, however, you were interested in the most compelling works of photojournalism, this work of fiction should be disqualified.

    14. Mary says:

      I just don’t believe this was a “photo” that should have even been considered.

      Furthermore … I can’t believe this photo was taken this year. I mean we have not had snow like that so far this season. Was this contest open to all photos from any era?

      Also, not only was the moon manipulated, but the light emanating from the street light was tweeted as well.

      This might be put up for a “photo manipulation” award, but certainly not a Photo contest.

      • westender says:

        I believe this was a contest for best 2015 photo. Plenty of snow in 2015 as I recall.

        I do agree that the 2016 contest should have separate categories for manipulated photos and non-manipulated photos.

      • Terry says:

        These were the only “rules” stated in the article announcing the photo contest:

        “We’re holding a special photo contest this week for West Side Rag readers. The theme of the contest is ‘Nighttime on the Upper West Side’…. We’re looking for photos of the neighborhood at night. These can be photos of nature or panoramic shots, or pictures of nightlife or people (one note: in general we don’t tend to post recognizable pictures of kids if you don’t have a parent’s permission). The photos will be judged by a panel of local amateur and pro photographers, and we’ll also allow the audience to vote.” https://www.westsiderag.com/2016/01/04/photo-contest-winner-will-feast-on-a-special-tasting-menu-dinner-at-telepan

        That’s all– This very open competition was not restricted to photos from 2015 or 2016. It was not limited to photojournalistic shots or unmanipulated images; they just had to be nighttime photos of the neighborhood. [I think that should have disqualitifed the Central Park photos that didn’t show the UWS, e.g., the captured kiss with Central Park South in the background.] The winning photo did not violate any contest rules and so was a valid entry. I just didn’t vote for it because I didn’t like the added moon.

    15. denton says:

      Greetings everyone:
      I was one of the three judges and in fact Scott and I communicated after the results were posted because both of us picked the same image as one of our three choices (Karen Keating’s “Amsterdam Avenue snow squall”).
      I am not a full time professional photographer but I do earn some money from photography. I have been taking photos since I was ten. I am now in my early sixties. Currently most of my commercial work is for clients in fashion; what is called ‘street style’; aspiring models; and portraits. You can see my work in this category easily enough on the internet and on Instagram under my own name. And of course much of that work involves a certain amount of post-processing, although I prefer to use less than is the fashion today.
      Nevertheless I learned my craft with manual film cameras and working in the darkroom, in both color and black and white. My inspirations growing up ranged from Ansel Adams to Stephen Shore. I was then, and am now, a photographer who tries to ‘get it right in camera’. I am not one of these grumps who walks around saying everything was better in the old days and that new photogs should learn with film and maybe stay with it. On the contrary, digital is pretty much better for everything (I do have a couple of specialized panoramic film cameras that give a unique look that I still use, but generally, I prefer sitting in front of my PC listening to Itunes rather than being in the bathroom with my hands in the developer).
      As another reader mentioned, this is a friendly neighborhood photo contest where the majority of the images would be expected to come from amateurs and casual shooters. Also Avi did not set out any rules for the judges so each of the three of us were free to set up our own standards.
      The funny thing is that I liked the winning image a great deal, even though ultimately I dropped it from my consideration due to the moon. Had the moon not been added, I may have chosen it as one of my three top photos. It is a strong image and congratulations to the photog for winning.
      The image I chose as my favorite (the snow squall) did give me some pause. I felt if I was dropping the taxi/moon photo due to compositing I needed to treat the other images in the same way. I wasn’t completely sure that the Snow Squall image was post processed, although I immediately saw that it could have been (it didn’t help that the images we received were quite small). Scott, I think, was more sure than I was. In my mind, since this is an amateur contest, it was possible that it had been taken with an old camera phone that had a dirty lens. I didn’t want to disqualify an image for being taken with poor equipment either. So I gave the image the benefit of the doubt. I don’t feel cheated now that I know it was worked on in post, because I still like the image.
      Perhaps that is the crux of the problem. We (photographers) have always manipulated images to some degree. Normally we do this to bring the image in line with what we saw and/or felt at the moment the shutter was released. The question becomes, if a photograph is manipulated to a greater or lesser degree, is the manipulation a successful one? In other words, does it enhance the photo? Does it make it better? Does it make it more in line with what the photographer saw and felt? And is that vision and feeling communicated to the viewer? To me, the viewer, the moon was the wrong size and particularly, the wrong color. It was a jarring note in what was otherwise (I feel compelled to keep saying this) and excellent image. So I did not feel I could vote for it. I appreciate the WSR community and Avi for the opportunity to judge so many excellent images. It wasn’t easy.

      Denton Taylor

    16. Spence Halperin says:

      So glad to see this important discussion. If a photo is represented as capturing an ACTUAL moment, then any enhancement should be revealed by the photographer. Merriam-Webster defines actual as “real and not merely possible or imagined, existing in fact, known to be correct or precise, not false or apparent.”

    17. lynn says:

      I didn’t enter the contest but I sell my photos on various websites and the categories are either photography or digital, with digital generally implying that the photo has been manipulated,(btw, I absolutely love Scott’s photo). I think any photo that was presented as an individual’s work of art should be accepted for the aesthetic value (whether you’re personally moved by it or not), and not judged solely on HOW it was created, unless the rules specifically stated that a photo could not be altered.

    18. Miriam says:

      In photojournalism, cropping, editing for lighting and contrast are permitted. Generally, that is all I do to my photos. When I’ve added ‘effects’ I state as such. I think this contest was won unfairly. A Photoshopped or app enhanced ‘moon’ is crossing a line from photography to art, in my opinion. Art is fine and often stunning but it has no place in a straight up photography contest. Especially not in one where amateurs are asked to submit their ‘best shots’. I think what Scott did in the Douglas photo is fair use of lighting and although it starts to resemble an HDR photo, could still be considered in this contest. Beyond that, digitally enhanced photos belong in a different category and I agree with those who suggest the rules be clearer or that there be two separate categories. As an iReporter for CNN I often submit photos. Many have been featured on air. We are absolutely forbidden to enhance photos. Lighting and contrast are okay, but even cropping, if it changes the meaning of the story behind the photo in any way, is not permitted. The rules are made clear up front so there is no confusion. All that said, had I entered a photo in this contest and lost to that fake moon, I would not be a happy camper.

    19. JR says:

      There is a significant difference between enhancing a photo (i.e. adjusting colors, sharpness, white balance, etc.) and adding additional content (like a fake moon). I think that the former is acceptable and the later is not. kind of common sense here.

    20. Rick says:

      This was a picture contest, unfortunately, not a photo contest. ANY alteration to an original photo, digital or otherwise, changes a “shot in time” to an artistic expression of the person editing the photo. The moon shot ( 😉 ) was not a photo, and essentially that person cheated to deceive others into thinking she captured a genuine moment in time.

    21. DoTheRightThing says:

      NO NO NO NO NO NO and did I say NO? At least let it be known what you did. Hey I could Google great pictures, submit and most likely get away with it. Where is integrity?

    22. naro says:

      West Side Rag was fooled.. Shame of you for being so gullible.

    23. Are we saying Ansel Adams never enhanced his photos in the darkroom to make mountains look more dramatic. Or Berenice Abbott, her photos of New York or physics principles?

      Lighten up, everyone.

    24. Jake Sigal says:

      It is important to draw the line between journalism photography and art as well. I personally go for absolutely no edits beside highlights and shadows, but that is from what I learned through my training.