The latest on the McCurry Kerfuffle (there, I've just named it as John M. Flores named it) is "Eyes of the Afghan Girl" by Kshitij Nagar (with "vital inputs" from Rakesh Nagar), at Writing Through Light.
According to the article, in this 1984 picture from a page from National Geographic, the suitcases were empty, and the woman is the sister-in-law of a Indian photographer friend of Steve's who was called out to model.
No matter how loose your standards, that just ain't photojournalism by any stretch. That's staging, and it's more like the way a studio advertising photographer would work, or a cinematographer.
And as for whether Steve claims to be a photojournalist or not, take it from him—there's this TEDx Talk from only last year.
Stealing and quoting
We got a great comment this morning on the first Julie Blackmon post from chris b. (note that I always write commenters' names just as they do). He wrote about seeing a gallery exhibit in Vancouver years ago that consisted of paintings that were enlarged but otherwise exact copies of Ruth Berhard photographs—all from the same book, even. Yet "the artist" claimed the paintings were inspired by dreams!!
"...The gallery guy came over and began to gush about how marvelous these were, and how the best part was that the artist painted them all from dreams, and when I said, hold on, you mean [the artist dreams] about Bernhard's photographs? The confusion deepened, and he brought me over to read the 'artist's statement,' which was detailed and quite remarkable, emphasizing the almost miraculous dream inspirations and supplying context and meanings for the various poses, and nowhere mentioning Bernhard or photos of any kind."
Now that's stealing! (And chutzpah, another nice word from Yiddish.)
The Internet* is not good for chasing down real quotes. A couple of times in the comments to the Julie Blackmon post people brought up the aphorism "good artists borrow, great artists steal," which is a fake quotation that can be found in innumerable variations attributed to a variety of sources. Most are debased Bowdlerizations out of context of a quote by T.S. Eliot, the American-born British poet who was one of the great literary artists of the 20th century and arguably the last poet who was a household name.
The real quotation is, in fact, helpful when considering Julie Blackmon's influences. It occurs in Eliot's 1920 book of essays Sacred Wood, in his essay on the English dramatist Philip Massinger (1583–1640). Here's the full essay, and here's the relevant passage:
"...the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. The two great followers of Shakespeare, Webster and Tourneur, in their mature work do not borrow from him; he is too close to them to be of use to them in this way. Massinger, as Mr. Cruickshank shows, borrows from Shakespeare a good deal."
Although the fake quotation is almost always used to justify theft, Eliot's essay if anything is a defense of transformative re-use, which is not only allowed under copyright law but is sanctioned by long practice and artistic convention (even if the borderline cases have often been uncomfortable). The specific elements in Julie Blackmon's pictures that are "lifted" from the Balthus paintings are, in fact, stolen elements, but she is not appropriating his ideas. Rather, she's deliberately "quoting" him, as a jazz musician is said to "quote" a different song by inserting a few bars of it into a different composition or jam, and as a modern electronic musician (I know it's quaint to call them that, but I don't want to call out a single genre) uses samples. The intent is not to "lean on" the antecedent as a crutch, using it to supply any deficiency in her own inventiveness, but to delight those who are familiar with the original...she's playing off it, as it were. Adding another dimension to her work. The readers who called it "riffing" got it right, I think.
For me she stands Eliot's "surest of tests." Does she weld her theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn? I'd say so. Does she borrow from authors remote in time (check), or alien in language (check—painting to photoart), or diverse in interest (well, both Balthus and Blackmon are interested in children—but in divergent ways one would hope. I don't detect prurience in Blackmon but everyone sure does in Balthus). Mostly, does she "make it into something better, or...different"? Surely she does—her pictures aren't copies. It's up to you to decide about "better," but they're unquestionably very "different."
'Scorned as Timber'
Before we leave this general area I want to quote another wonderful comment, about the idea of "influence" in, perhaps, its corrupt or base form. John Denniston shared a post from his own blog:
"January 22nd, 2009—Last year as I was walking through a clear cut on Vancouver Island I stopped to take a picture of two solitary trees left standing. Somehow I thought against my better judgment they made a picture but they certainly didn’t fit into any current project I was working on. When the film was developed I was sure it was just another wasted sheet of film and never printed the image. The picture didn’t work for me. Today as I walked through a show of landscape paintings at the Vancouver Art Gallery I came across Emily Carr’s 'Scorned as Timber' and right away realized the reason for thinking my two trees looked like a picture, [was] because Emily Carr had made a similar scene into a picture, and I unconsciously remembered it and duplicated it. All photographers do this, go out looking for pictures, and, finding pictures that have been taken before, duplicate them. There’s little original seeing in the world of photography (painting too I suspect but know too little to comment) and few photographers admit it."
That's an outstanding brief explanation, wonderfully well illustrated, of something that I did so much when I first got into photography that it almost drove me to distraction. I noticed again and again that I was talking pictures that looked like they were taken by any one of a variety of famous photographers whose work I had internalized. Like I was "channeling" them, as the expression is.
Like John I'm convinced that we all do this to some extent—beginners especially. We "learn what photographs look like" and then we go out and take those photographs. (Although, unlike John, I don't believe it means there's "little original seeing in the world of photography.") The impetus is simple—we recognize pictures as pictures from having seen them as pictures.
Garry Winogrand also talks eloquently about this in a talk that's now on YouTube. ("We know too much about what photographs are supposed to look like...." I'd have my assistant look up the link—we've featured it here on TOP—but he's disorganized, and it would take him forever. [UPDATE: Stephen Gilbert found it.]) How many of us start out "wanting to be" someone? Wanting to be Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Rui Palha or Valerie Jardin? Many great photographers start out wanting to be someone else, inspired by that person, and then gradually become themselves.
I'm not sure what John Denniston writes about is exactly "influence," though...it might more properly be called "unconscious imitation" or "semi-conscious imitation." Note that he rejected his imitated "two trees" photograph. I often rejected my semi-conscious imitations too, even when I didn't quite know why. I just knew it wasn't quite...well, me. Do you know that feeling? When you've taken a picture you feel sure other people will like but it's not really "you"? Personally I took "a Callahan," "a Weston," "a Friedlander"...on and on. I had to work through that phase to get it out of my system.
...Enough for now, but I've certainly enjoyed the comments in the past few days. These issues always interest me (although if I don't stop writing long posts like this I won't have any readers left!).
Thanks to all.
*I've gone back to capitalizing "Internet," thanks to Kevin Purcell and Hugh Crawford.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Michael G.: "It's refreshing that we can have so much commentary about the importance of artistic convictions and journalistic integrity in photography. It's like there's a rally to preserve something sacred, even though no one agrees what that sacred part is. The running commentary here is exciting to read. I hope you keep coming back to this topic. It's got legs to run in Peoria and Albuquerque, a movie hack might say.
"My own opinion is that we're all somewhat afraid of being accused of fraud. This is why Hitchcock made so many movies with Cary Grant about an innocent man on the run, trying to prove he's not guilty. He knew people love a story they can project themselves into easily, where they can watch themselves out-smart their nightmares. And when they got tired of that, he made stories about horrible criminals being brought to some sort of just ending.
"And this story has a bit of both."
"Here is another deja vu: Artist Joanna Moen: Stairwell, acrylic, 1992, purchased from the artist by Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Accession Number: 1992.168.003 in 1993."
Mike replies: The inspiration probably came to her in a dream.
[Ed. note: Google "Kertesz Mondrian Studio" if you don't recognize this.]
Doug Thacker: "I mentioned in an earlier comment that I was in Australia in the year 2000. Australia was actually my first stop in a planned, year-long, independent photo tour through south-southeast Asia, most of it in India. I was sitting in a bookstore in Sydney when they put out McCurry's newly-released book, South Southeast. The images in this book, many of them, were evocative and striking, particularly those taken in various parts of Rajasthan. I couldn't believe my luck, since I was headed through some of the very same territory, and would have the chance to try my own hand at it.
"Rajasthan turned out to be a revelation for a lot of reasons. Not the least of them was that it wasn't the same place pictured in McCurry's book. The photos in South Southeast are of figures isolated in a serene, clutter-free environment, seemingly oblivious to the photographer. The reality I encountered there was that a Westerner with an SLR stood out like a giant neon billboard. It was impossible to disappear in a crowd, and many people expected you were going to pay them as soon as they saw the camera. Rajasthan was pretty much off the Western tourist map at the time, which made expectation of payment seem particularly odd. And with all the people about, and their awareness of you and your camera, you could stand in one spot for eight minutes or eight days and not get the kind of shots I'd seen in McCurry's book. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that these photos of his would have had to be staged.
"It's been mentioned on this blog before that National Geographic photography was something of a joke in art circles. This is due in part, I think, to its somewhat straitlaced character—derided by some as 'corporatist' or 'colonialist.' There was no doubt, though, that it was highly competent, and often evocative; so, in my efforts to improve my own shooting, I looked into their process. Your readers who are or were National Geographic photographers might want to weigh in on this, but my understanding is that once flown in to their assignment, photographers were expected to shoot a minimum of four hundred eighty shots a day. Pull out your calculator and you'll find this comes to one shot a minute for eight hours straight. These shots couldn't be random, of course, but had to be actually working towards something. For longer assignments, the photographer would travel back to Washington halfway through, where he or she would confer with the editors to see if the photographer was on track with expectations. Then, it was back to finish the assignment.
"When you think about that kind of pressure, it becomes perhaps understandable that a photographer would, say, use speedlights and gels to simulate light from a campfire, or have his fixer arrange locals with props into a scene the photographer sees with his mind's eye. Which makes me think McCurry couldn't have been the only National Geographic photographer taking a few creative liberties.
"When I returned from my trip, I started a thread on a website popular at the time, where I contended that many of Steve McCurry's photos were staged. We had a vigorous discussion about it. I recently did a Google search, looking for this thread, but it would seem it's been deleted. Anyway, it was nice to have my contention finally confirmed by the Kshitij Nagar piece. What's really vexing about this affair is not so much the staging and the Photoshopping, but that so many people don't get it, don't get why it's a problem. The whole point of photojournalistic photography, as typified by Winogrand, Frank, and H.C.-B., is to capture a slice or frame from reality without your intercession. If you can't do that, or don't want to do it, just say so. Anything less is lying, pure and simple. The only good thing about lies is that they're eventually found out. Lies are funny that way."