Thoughts and ramblings on tech, media, culture, and food. Plus some other stuff, I'm sure.

On Digital Imaging in the Modern Age

Digital imaging is a discrete, unique medium which produces unbelievable, physically intangible images generated by creators whose identities are difficult to determine or prove, and whose ownership is impossible to legally protect. Digital images are not, and should not be treated as, the equivalent of photographs.

What are we to think? In a short 185 years, the human race has seen the advent of a fantastical way to capture still moments in time and has gone on to master its mysteries, deconstructing each facet and eventually applying it to different processes and techniques. With the mystery gone, we have begun to create our own drama around the photographic image.

In addressing the statement above, one must break it into its distinct pieces. First, what is the definition of ‘photograph’ and what differences do digital images embody in comparison? The Oxford American English Dictionary defines the word ‘photograph’ in these terms:

a picture made using a camera, in which an image is focused onto film or other light-sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by chemical treatment.

A digital image may very well be made using a camera, focusing an image onto a light-sensitive sensor…but after that the nature of a digital image strays from its photographic counterpart. Digital images will be made visible by an electronic process. Thus, if going by accepted definitions alone, a digital image is certainly not a photograph. We are, however, in the same general field.

By that I mean that both produce still pictures. As a photograph is related in form to a painting, and paintings are related in form to drawings, a digital image is the next link in an evolutionary chain of picture-making.

The real trouble begins when one gets over the technical processes and begins to examine more complex issues like believability, ownership, legal protection, and the like. Many may believe the statement this paper opened with. They may adamantly fight to relegate digital imaging to a mere farce in the wide world of photography and picture-making. However, I believe they are missing the point. Going forward, we will consider differences (and non-differences) in believability of images, considering what I believe the underlying issues to be. We will then look at the difficulties in securing copyright and ownership while protecting the rights thereof. Finally, I will state my own criticisms and solutions regarding this particularly energizing issue.

Why Are Photographs More “True” than Digital Images?

Perhaps one of the more discussed and controversial aspects of the photograph vs. digital imaging conversation–and perhaps the one that draws in the more mis-informed in the field–is that of believability and representation in digital images. See, the argument goes something like this: Because digital images are just 1s and 0s fed into a computer with no physical original source, and because editing and manipulation software is so accessible, one can never trust that the signified event ever happened. As Lev Manovich puts it, the digital image is “soft” as it can easily be modified and changed by software (pp. 133).

Sounds reasonable, yes? The argument is even backed up by case studies of the public being duped by widely published “photographs” in newspapers and magazines. There was the Iranian missile controversy in 2008, where an extra missile was edited into a photo, and later published by everyone from the Associated Press to the Los Angeles Times.

In his book, After Photography (2009), Fred Ritchin retells his experience in manipulating the New York skyline as an illustration for an article. This experience seemed to be the one that pushed him over the edge into really questioning the represented reality’s existence (pp. 30).

This all sounds well and good, but I believe it to be oversimplified. As with the famous adage, “Correlation does not equal causation,” just because the tools are more accessible does not mean every image is manipulated. Even closer to the truth is this: Just because the tools are more accessible today, does not mean photographs were not manipulated prior to widespread digital imaging.

That’s the central point I want to make on the believability issue. We cannot responsibly assume that digital imaging brought the advent of photo manipulation or illustration, because it simply did not. A great example of this? The work in Soviet Russia under Lenin and Stalin. Comrades who had fallen out of favor with the party were removed from photos all the time.

The same thing happened in China. I’m sure if we dug deep enough into any nationalistic propaganda machine doctored photographs would be unearthed. For many of those countries entire histories were changed, important details removed from existence and, by extension, reality. And that presents a crisis for us “in a world without absolutes and without traditional standards of reference to help us to make judgments (Kurtz, The Postmodern Perspective).”

I believe the real issue at the heart of this stems beyond the issue of manipulation, to what the photography stands for in our society. In the USA, and I’m sure in other Western societies, the photograph, or still image, has always been taken for truth or fact. We still suffer from the awe that the first photographer experienced when his first image was produced.

Commoditization of photographic equipment and the resulting public proximity to the processes involved only served to increase the perception that the photograph is a moment in time. Marketing messages by Eastman Kodak and Fujifilm helped sell the photo as a means of capturing a memory. And in many ways we our memories of vacations, birthdays, weddings, and the like were replaced by the photograph. Or put a different way, “Photography is no longer simply the litmus of reality: it has become reality’s replacement. (Grundberg, pp. 3)”

Still-pictures today have a lot to live up to. Decades of expectations, decades of zealous faith that what is on that glossy card is a window into the past, as it actually was, telling the truth. That’s all myth though. Photos were never our actual memories. Photos don’t hold a responsibility to depict reality. And they certainly can’t be dictated to do so.

What is needed today is a repositioning of what a still image is. Like it or not, the uneducated public will–and do–mistake digital images for photographs. After all, they are still images that are very hard to distinguish from each other.

Ownership, Legalities, and Why it is Broken

Regardless of whether we are discussing photographs or digital images, someone created the work. With photography it was relatively easy to uphold your own copyright: you own the originals (negatives, positives, etc.) in physical form. With digital images this becomes murky, and with the openness of the Internet, not to mention its centrality in modern life, ownership becomes hard to maintain.

Mara Kurtz explains in her article “Copyright or Wrong?” that,

“Copyright used to inspire fear. For hundreds of years it was unthinkable to use someone else’s photograph without permission was unthinkable because the little c in a circle was a clear warning that major lawsuits involving considerable financial damages would punish the infringer.”

Much of this still exists, but the ease with which files can be shared, the extent that a photo can be manipulated in Photoshop or another editor, leaves the original creator at serious risk. I believe, however, that this is due to the context in which copyright was originally drafted. Copyright law makes complete sense in terms of physical, tangible works–the law is enforceable in that regard and has served society reasonably well for decades.

However, this is not the world we live in today. I believe most people would agree that the original creator (or owner) of a work should have proper authority over how it is used. In many regards they do. The problem really lies in expectations. Traditional copyright law works because you can take all publications, installations, displays, etc. of your work and hide it in your attic or vault, never to be seen or used in the world again. When your work is as easily copied as dragging and dropping, or uploading to Flickr, Facebook, or any number of websites that host images, you’re playing with fire. You cannot gain back that lost control.

The copyright control methods in the modern, digital world do not support a traditional view of copyright. Copyright law has conditioned creators to take a default stance of “no sharing; I own it and control it,” and set them free into a world where de facto is openness, sharing, and remixing. Modern participatory culture all but demands a level of trust and openness that copyright law was never designed to address.

It almost does not matter who owns the work if they are against sharing it. The best way to keep control of a work is to be as vocal about sharing it as possible. This might seem backward, but it is true. In a world where musicians, artists, designers, and other creatives need controls over their content, the best way to establish dominion is to be known as the creator. And if that artist is known by the community as being the creator–the birther, so-to-speak–they will establish respect and territory.

Making money, on the other hand, is a different matter. One that still needs to be figured out.

Wrapping It Up

We have looked at the differences in digital imaging and photography, and while they are technically separate processes and have different definitions, the similarities between the two are great. Great enough that the general, uneducated public would be hard-pressed to tell them apart.

That same public will view any still-image as truth because of the cultural signification placed on the photograph as a representation of reality. This is dangerous in a world where photos and digital images alike have been altered and manipulated with no one the wiser. It opens society up to losing its grasp on what is actually real.

Finally, I addressed the issue of copyright and ownership, finding that it really is hard, if not impossible, to prove ownership of a digital image in the same ways one can prove ownership of a physical photograph. However, it is possible to establish a perception of ownership by being up front and taking credit for one’s original work–at least before someone else does. In the end, it seems copyright law needs to be re-drafted to fit in a modern context.


Grundberg, A. (1988). Photography in the age of electronic simulation. Close-Up Magazine.

Kurtz, M. (1990s). Seeing is no longer believing: Images in the digital age.

Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ritchin, F. (2009). After photography. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.


This paper was written for Post Photography with Mara Kurtz at The New School.