Ectoplasm: Photography in the Digital Age

The student is instructed to read Ectoplasm: Photography in the Digital Age by Geoffrey Batchen

Was Delaroche right in his apocryphal declaration that “Painting is dead”? Were Fred Richin, Anne Marie Willis and William J Mitchell right in stating that photography was either dead or radically changed with the intertwining of computing and digital photography?

Certainly, the advent of photoshop makes it easier to manipulate photographs, changing narrative and visual cues, but is this the truly the fault of computing?

By the time Batchen had written this essay, Adobe Photoshop had released version 5 of their Photoshop and Photoshop LE software and photomanipulation was relatively easy to perform, so his documenting of the anxieties within the photographic community is understandable. The ease of which a photo could be changed to produce a “fake” image which would be almost indistinguishable with a real image is even today an issue for everyone not just photographers and artists.

Photography faced an ethical crisis; is it ethically correct to manipulate an image and remove its original meaning and structure? How much can an image be changed before it breaks with reality and becomes a purely digitally constructed image?

It can easily be seen that manipulation and censorship within photographs occurred pre-computing and pre photoshop. Photo manipulation was one such tool used, sometimes a little too freely and heavily, used within the pre-revolution Russia and in the Stalinist state. Trotsky and Kamenev can be seen with the photograph standing on the edge of the stage in Sverdlov Square while Lenin speaks to the assembled soldiers. However, after Trotsky’s failed opposition to Stalin’s rise to power and Kamenev’s opposition to Stalin, Both were declared traitors and Stalin had them removed from history, censoring images to remove Trotsky and Kamenev from Lenin’s historic speech.

Grigory Goldstien, Lenin Addresses the Troops, May 1920

This demonstrates the power that Joseph Stalin had over images, information and people; Stalin presided over what could be described as the most staggeringly vast erasure of human beings, their property, their documents and histories and image, working as a meticulous editor of history to provide only what he wanted people to see. The work undertaken on Stalin’s instructions almost certainly was an influence on George Orwell when writing 1984.

Hitler, like Stalin, also used photographic editing to remove people from photographic documents when they fell out of favour, even Hitlers propaganda minister fell victim to erasure by Hitler, here in this image taken in 1937, Goebbels was removed, the reasoning is unknown, the editing is clear to see.

Hitler meets with Leni Riefenstahl, 1937

Image manipulation, before and after computing is a powerful tool wielded by Dictators, removing the unfavourable and the dead from history

Kim Jung Un’s meets the troops, BBC, 2014

Jang Song-thaek who was Kim Jung Un’s uncle disappears from this image and video after being executed.

Balzac’s theoretical ghosts are laid to rest by heavy-handed editing, unlike the memento morti, these dead are being deliberately ignored and pushed from the image so that people will forget.

The photograph is no longer an accurate record of the passing of time, the accuracy of every image is under question, images become political footballs, evidence created to surround the individuals or groups narrative.

Image libraries have been created by institutions to provide a safe harbour for photographs to keep them within their histories and narratives, to try to ensure that the image is not separate from the truth it captured. There is as Batchen points out something a little sinister in these institutions acquisition on the rights for some of the images; requesting the electronic reproduction rights only suggests that digital images will the only available format at some time the future.

This again, brings into question the authenticity of the images, as it requires the person scanning an image into the digital format to try and retain all of the image. Can people remain unobjective when given carte blanche to digitise all or part of the image, would the accidental slip of the hand, result in the editing and removal of someone or something of importance? We have to trust that what we see, is indeed the truth.

This trust is put to the test regularly, by graphic designers as they work on multiple files which they combine to produce illustration or photomontages which are then presented as finalised single images, the editing unwritten, partially undeclared. Again, we have to examine the ethics of image manipulation, is it right to create unrealistic images of the female body, images which then influence some of the people who see them. People then try to conform to these images, damaging themselves, ethically this not right, but capitalism drives the publishing industry and the will produce only what sells.

In 1994, Time magazine published a digitally altered image of O.J. Simpson, making his skin appear darker than it really was. When caught, the editor published an apology but stated that the image which had been edited still showed that “the essential meaning of the picture is left intact”. This was then recently repeated in May 2020, when the American Senator Lindsay Graham posted a Facebook video where his opponent Jamie Harrison had his skin digitally altered to have a darker skin tone. Again, Ethically questionable, as this enforces racism and racist views. Who is responsible for the editing and did they consider that the work they produced would promote certain views?

It is becoming quite a dilemma, as we return to the question of what differentiates a photograph from a digital construction. Batchen refers to Barthes who had already started to shape an answer to this question. Barthes posits that reality is not linked to photography as the photo only captures a singular portion of time, the scene is frozen, but time outside the image passes, therefore as Barthes suggests reality continues outside the universe captured within the image. Batchen, however, suggests that the photograph is more of a memento morti of time. Capturing the death of the moment so that it can be viewed and machine replicated again.

Batchen then posits that digitally created images are meta-reality, they contain more reality within themselves than reality actually does. The digital image he suggests contains more information than we can see, they are made up of layers of reality which are then edited together to produce the final composited image. Considering the makeup of the digital image and digital manipulations, Batchen is correct to suggest the supra reality of digital images. These images using edited by computer programs such as Photoshop, place the edits within layers, allowing the manipulator to guide the eye to what should be seen. The image, however, is only a combination of these edited layers masking the original image from the final product.

Now with social media and the 24-hour news cycle, photography and video capture is a major societal hinge, swinging opinion one way or the other depending on the sponsor of the advert. Facts are no longer fully formed when an image or video appears, groups define what the see by their politics and opinions are rather than taking a factual and scientific investigation before forming a view of what they see. Even now, politicians tell us not to believe what we see, we should believe what we are told. Political press secretaries tell us that there are “alternative facts” when questioned.

With this bending of information and the use of social media to produce, enhance, deflect or censor images, videos or web pages, we have entered an age where the need for information fed by digital sources directly to the internet has created a “post truth” age.

It can be seen in this “post-truth” age that digital manipulation has increased but there has been a rise in tools to spot the fake photograph and campaigns to inform the public on how to spot fake and to double-check the information on the internet.

Certainly, it can be seen that Richin, Willis, and Wright were correct in stating that photography has been radically changed by digital photography and digital image manipulation. These changes are still under examination as to whether they are a positive or negative influence on photography and the ethics of what the photographer captures. Batchen finishes his essay with the question on the future of photography, will digitisation kill photography?

Digitisation has not killed photography, it can be seen to be more like the introduction of photography for the masses with the introduction of the Kodak camera. Now cameras are readily available to hand in many formats. Many important news items have been captured by citizen journalists using mobile phones, many important and influential art pieces have been captured by digital camera. It is a new lease of life, what is important however is that the images captured are as close to in camera as possible, slight digital compositing to adjust saturation, contrast, removed small distractions cannot change the narrative, and history of the image. Perhaps the French suggestion that images with an above range manipulation be marked with an M is the way to show that the publisher of the image is aware that adjustments have been made and is eliciting at least some honesty to the work.


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CNN, P.L. (n.d.). Lindsey Graham campaign ad features image of opponent with digitally altered darker skin tone. [online] CNN. Available at: [Accessed 31 Jul. 2020].

Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Eastman Kodak Company | American corporation. [online] Available at:

Marshall, C. (2017). Long Before Photoshop, the Soviets Mastered the Art of Erasing People from Photographs — and History Too. [online] Open Culture. Available at:

Mahita Gajanan (2018). “What You’re Seeing… Is Not What’s Happening.” People Are Comparing This Trump Quote to George Orwell. [online] Time. Available at:

Stanger, M. (n.d.). 6 people who were literally erased from history. [online] Business Insider. Available at: [Accessed 31 Jul. 2020]

The Independent. (2017). Kellyanne Conway says Sean Spicer gave ‘alternative facts’ at his first press briefing. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 Jul. 2020].

Wen, T. (n.d.). The hidden signs that can reveal a fake photo. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 Jul. 2020].

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