By Clive Gracey — Whenever I go on a photography trip to Al Hamra, I invariably park my car in front of this old house. Over the years, I have become rather fond of this simple mud-brick dwelling and I usually take a photograph of it, from the same angle, in order that, over time, I might see how its appearance is modulated by the light of the changing seasons. A few weeks ago, I posted the photograph on the left on my Facebook page, not because it is a fantastic image, but just to let my Facebook friends know I am still alive.
Along with a number of Likes, some of my Facebook friends added comments — things like, “What a lovely sky!”; “Clive, you are sooo lucky to live in Oman,”; “Clive, don’t give up your day job!”. The one that intrigued most, though, was from an old friend who was actually born in Al Hamra. He wrote, “Don’t you think that those wires negatively affect the scene?”
Years ago, I would have agreed with him. I used to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid having wires and cables in my photographs, to the extent that I probably wouldn’t have taken this photograph back then. Now, though, I actually quite like them. To me, they are not wires and cables but lines leading the eye round the image the way lines do in a drawing.
Furthermore, wires, cables and pipes are part of the reality of much of Oman’s traditional architecture. After the Renaissance of 1970 and the rapid development of Oman’s towns and villages, electricity and plumbing arrived before new modes of architecture began to be affordable to most people.
Traditional mud-brick dwellings were therefore modernized by being connected to the electricity grid and having rooftop water tanks installed. Buildings that would not have looked out of place a millennium ago suddenly had sanitation, electric lights, fans, televisions and, in some cases, air-conditioning on the inside and cables and pipes on the outside.
As a photographer who spends much of his time documenting what remains of Oman’s traditional architecture, should I only photograph those old buildings that were unaffected by this modernization? I don’t think so. In many cases, these modern additions to traditional dwellings gave them a longer life that those which were not ‘modernized’. Indeed, a few are still inhabited today.
Nevertheless, my friend’s comment prompted me to bring my Photoshop skills to bear on the image and remove the wires and cables and that offensive neon light above the door. When I had done that, I thought I had also better edit out the air-conditioners in the neighbouring houses and that ugly satellite dish on the roof of the building on the left. Then I started to get carried away and so got rid of the down pipes and the telegraph poles and that pile of cement blocks in front of the house. The image I ended up with is shown here on the right.
I admit that, from a strictly aesthetic perspective, the Photoshopped image looks more pleasing. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to get visually excited by a down pipe from a toilet or a rusty old air-conditioning unit. If my aim was to romanticize Oman’s traditional architecture, perhaps using Photoshop to remove all ugly modern accretions would be excusable.
But if that was the case, I would also then have to remove the ‘modern’ buildings contiguous to the beautiful traditional dwelling that is the main subject of the photograph. And what about that tarmac road in front, surely that would have to go too. Then there are those iron grills and shutters on the windows of the house — aren’t they also incongruous?
The use of Photoshop during the post-processing stage of our photography has an ethical dimension. This seems to be due to the fact that most people still expect a photograph to be a fairly close approximation of reality.
When they learn that something has been added to or removed from an image, the photographer is often branded a fraud.
The exception to this is when photographs are exhibited as Modern Art. Then virtually anything goes.
And what about when a photographer uses Photoshop or some other post-processing software to ‘fix’ technical shortcomings, such as over- or under-exposure, composition, focus or converging parallels? Is this also fraudulent photographic behaviour?
Far be it from me to lecture others on the dos and don’ts of post-processing. I do, however, impose a fairly strict code of conduct on myself. Here are some of my Photoshop rules:
1. Get the technical aspects of the photograph right in the camera. There’s no excuse for a sloppy exposure and no second chance in Photoshop.
2. Only use Photoshop to make minor adjustments to brightness, luminosity, contrast, saturation, sharpness and image size.
3. Avoid cropping, though making the horizon line perfectly horizontal or straightening converging parallels is acceptable because in reality the horizon is perfectly horizontal and parallels are parallel.
4. All changes made in Photoshop should be subtle, like seasoning a stew.
5. Do not add anything to the photograph that wasn’t originally there.
6. Do not remove anything that was originally there, except perhaps for a piece of litter, or a zit on the face of a teenager.
I showed the Photoshopped image on the right to my friend from Al Hamra who had objected to the wires and cables in the original. “Oh, that’s much better,” he said, then added, “But isn’t that cheating?” Sometimes you just can’t win!