Ce n'est pas une photo

07 May 2019

Region: Headquarters

Magritte's painting of a pipe, labelled that it is not a pipe, doesn't make sense until you recognise that it is 'just' an image of a pipe and not the real thing. The fantastic image of a black hole, recently achieved by combining data from a world-wide network of radio telescopes, is also not quite what it may at first appear to be. If you were to be floating in space within sight of the black hole at the core of galaxy Messier 87 this isn't what you'd see. But it is still an image of a black hole, if not an actual photograph of one.

The question of what is a 'real' photograph is almost as old as photography itself. At the turn of the last century, when black and white photography was at last able to record light of all visible colours, rather than just at the blue end of the spectrum, some photographers thought that this new panchromatic imagery was not real photography. Fortunately that argument was lost ages ago. 

So what about Huawei's 'Moon Mode'? This is a facility in their P30 Pro phone to let you take an acceptable image of the moon without benefit of tripod by using articial intelligence. An article on the web site Android Authority questioned whether this was done by incorporating pre-existing moon shots into your photo. Huawei denied that there was anyone behind the curtain and that the process to enhance your moon photo is genuine, so this looks to have been a bit of a storm in a jasmine tea cup but it is another example of the fuzzy relationship between a photograph and an image.

Those Hubble shots of colourful stars and nebulae are also something that is probably an image more than a photograph, since the images derive their colours from three different wavelengths of infrared radiation. Many of the published fly-by images of the outer planets had their colours enhanced. So space probably isn't really that colourful.

Does that mean that I am not an infrared photographer but am an infrared imager? In my defence I call upon the wording of the UK copyright act, which gives the following definition:

“photograph” means a recording of light or other radiation on any medium on which an image is produced or from which an image may by any means be produced

I rest my case. Your witness.

[Andy Finney is the Society's representative on the British Copyright Council. The image of the Messier 87 black hole is courtesy of the European Southern Observatory/EHT Collaboration]