Photoshop Ethics and Aesthetic Angst

Reading the step-by-step guides to image manipulation in Robin Williams and John Tollett’s “Non-Designer’s Photoshop Book,” as well as several thoughtful posts this week, raised a number of questions for me about the ethics of photographic enhancement. As a darkroom photographer, I’ve come to begrudgingly accept the ubiquity of digital manipulation, and even occasionally experiment with it (although I am still very much a Photoshop novice). What takes me hours to do using contrast filters, dodging and burning now takes mere seconds using the digital toolbox. But I’ve always been proud of my inevitably flawed prints, and I can’t help but wonder if, in touching up historical images to make them more legible, we risk homogenizing them to the point of devaluing the technical limitations faced by the artist, a factor that is especially important for an art historian.

In this debate, I think it’s also useful to consider the turbulent history of art conservation practice. An exhibition two years ago at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew,” highlighted how the ethics of conservation has shifted over the past century. In the 1960s, conservators attempted to “restore” Eakins’ masterpiece by brightening its warm tones and illuminating figures in the background who they argued had been obscured over time. As decades passed, the practice changed, and after applying x-rays to the work and undertaking new scholarship, the museum chose to undo the restoration project, arguing that Eakins had never intended for the figures to be illuminated and the earlier conservators had intervened in the painting to its detriment.

By exhibiting this history, the PMA highlighted both the inconstancy of ethical practice in the field and its latest fad: transparency. And while an art museum will inevitably contextualize its images differently from a web designer, I think transparency is a viable solution for the latter as well. When we introduce an old photograph or print to the web environment, whether manipulated or not, it inevitably takes on new meanings, and I suppose it is the job of the digital historian to reconcile these with the original context.

I think a powerful way to begin this historical contextualization is through color, another focus of our readings this week. Now that designers are no longer limited “web-safe colors” in their graphics in design, there is far more room to experiment with color schemes. (While I didn’t realize these colors had a name, I do experience a distinctly ’90s nostalgia when I think back to the color palette of early websites.) I have continued to experiment with color in my website, with the goal of hitting upon a combination that a) hints at the scholarly content, b) interacts with my images and c) avoids exoticizing the Latin American subject matter.


  1. Beth–your page looks great! I think the colors and fonts are extremely suitable. Like you, I’ve struggled with making sure not to exoticize Latin America while showing something as Latin American–generally in my work, and especially here. I think you’ve done a great job here.

  2. gwcohrs said


    I’m really glad you bring up the changing nature of conservation within the museum field. During Behind-the-Scenes tours at the VHS we took the participants to the conservation lab (the consistently favorite point among the participants). One of the things that the conservation staff always brought up was that many alterations they performed were reversible. As an example the glue they used in paper conservation could easily be removed along with the added rice paper. The staff would also mention how it’s no longer considered best practice to laminate objects to stabilize them because it’s not reversible. Practices of conservation have definitely changed over the years. However, let’s be honest certain practices like the cleaning of paper and paintings isn’t reversible. So they are even limits to that rule. Jan Kabili describes one method we can use to ensure that we can undo whatever we do in Photoshop in her video. Always saving the images as a PSD allows us to keep the layers and undo any alterations in the future. This is obviously only one step, but I think it’s an important step to make. Of course, as discussed in other blogs, leaving breadcrumbs, practicing a “do no harm” mantra, and letting users know how you’ve altered an image in your captions or image credits are other methods to employ when we manipulate images for our work.

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