First Teju Cole and now this—when it rains it pours for a guy.
You've probably heard by now that Steve McCurry is the latest to be caught up in a manipulation scandal. PetaPixel has reported that several examples of excessive Photoshopping of McCurry photos have come to light. A Facebook user named Gianmarco Maraviglia found this example:
Study that for a couple of minutes and you can see how deep the changes go. Not as bad, arguably, as the example of the soccer-playing boys on PetaPixel where a whole person was removed. A photograph is in part a witness, and that's part of what makes it unique: At that moment, that boy was there. He might not have been, but he was. The look of the world is inconvenient to our picture-contriving intent. But that's part of what makes it so mysterious and rich.
By the late 1970s, the fundamental difference between photography and all the other methods of creating visual art had been worked out more or less completely. Photography was a matter of "hand and eye," in the words of John Szarkowski, of recognition followed by the recording of the lens image more or less in an instant, and more or less as the lens saw it. Painting and other "plastic" (i.e., malleable) arts involved a back-and-forth over time: look, contemplate, evaluate, make changes; look, contemplate, evaluate, make more changes; and so on over and over, a process that could continue for days or weeks or even years.
Something like the example above is way beyond the pale for photojournalism, but we now accept that photojournalism sets itself apart with higher standards than most less rigorous photographic pursuits care to hold themselves to. But it's a good example both of the slippery slope—once you start cleaning up the messy little details, where do you stop?—as well as the reason why I initially advocated, in the late '90s and early 2000s, that the new medium be called digital imaging rather than photography because the two were essentially different media. (I still think they are, but that battle is lost of course. Although we do refer to "images" now, not "pictures" as we used to, and that change paralleled the rise of digital imaging.) The "matter of hand and eye" has taken three steps towards painting. The example above is unquestionably now a photo illustration, not a photograph.
I'm almost certain that someone will chime in with the usual knee-jerk response that pictures could be manipulated in the darkroom as well, and of course they could. But wholesale changes—the photojournalistic baseline sanction against adding or subtracting objects and elements—was much more difficult to do in the darkroom, and much less likely to leave no trace. And I mean by orders of magnitude, not merely by degrees. It wasn't just that National Geographic photographers turned over their film to the labs and the editors saw the original transparencies.
The first illustration on the PetaPixel page is essential a "Photoshop disaster," albeit a modest one, and when PetaPixel reached out to Steve McCurry for a statement they got back several paragraphs that seemed very close to boilerplate in tone, which concluded with the kind of thing a politician might say when caught red-handed: mistakes were made, the person responsible will no longer be working for us, etc. Mr. McCurry hasn't responded about the above image yet.
So my question here is, is this just the new norm? Should we just give up on the idea of the photograph as a report of what was in front of the lens when the picture was made?
I clean up my pictures too. Sometimes—rarely, but sometimes—I do more. For instance, take a look at this recent illustration to a TOP post:
Here's the OOC JPEG:
You probably can't see the main change in that, so here's a hint:
Just a little joke (that quite a few people did get, by the way). So would I have done that if I were a working photojournalist? No way. Wouldn't have considered it.
But does it make the picture into a photo illustration and not a photograph?
It might, and here's why. Even though it's a small change, it's also distinctly an editorial or authorial comment added by me, and makes a point in relation to meaning...to wit, I'm likening John Coffer—tintype evangelist—to an Old Testament prophet by giving him a "halo." It's a very small change in the picture—just move a light fixture a bit—but you might even argue that my change is more substantive than the changes in the McCurry example above. He (or his minions) just cleaned up the background, made the picture more pictorial and painterly. I, on the other hand, added an implied meaning. So it's not the amount of change in an image that's probative.
And then there's the even thornier matter of processing decisions and how they change the "feel" of an image. For that matter, does the fact that I turned the photograph into black-and-white make it a photo illustration and not a photograph? It's not the way the X-T1 "sees." If it had been made with a Leica M-Monochrom, you couldn't argue that the change to B&W was deliberate. But the camera industry doesn't make the cameras I need to do the work I want to do, so I'm forced to adapt and use the tools that are available. But does that make me into an illustrator rather than a photographer? Color to B&W is a pretty big change, and a departure from observable reality.
No doubt Steve McCurry's reputation is going to take a hit over this (and it certainly underlines some of the things Teju Cole was claiming about his work). And that's too bad. But while I support news organizations in their efforts to maintain the "witnessing" property of photographs, I suspect it's a rear-guard fight and that we're just in a new era now. Photography used to have an irrepressible strain of subversiveness, persistently trying to insist on the look of the world even when it was chaotic and inconvenient, even when it didn't fit what we wanted to see. That has changed. We have the upper hand now.
(A number of readers sent links to this)
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
david stock: "Re 'By the late 1970s, the fundamental difference between photography and all the other methods of creating visual art had been worked out more or less completely.' Completely perhaps, but temporarily. Photography was never automatically truthful; it always relied for its power on a culturally-mediated tension between the objective and the subjective. The medium is all about editing the visual world to make a statement or evoke emotion. In doing so, it often relies on an implicit 'deal' between the photographer and the viewer about how the things depicted by the photographer are 'truthfully' (or at least convincingly) represented. That deal is changing rapidly because the medium is changing rapidly. It was never set in stone. Eventually we may reach a new normal, with new conventions, where photographers and viewers know more or less where we stand once again.
"In the meantime, things are messy, and viewers who are used to the old conventions sometimes feel cheated out of our expectations. (Myself included.) Still, it's probably healthy to challenge photography's 'truthfulness' every generation or so."
David (partial comment): "As someone who has spent the better part of a decade working in the news industry, I find it absolutely shocking when the World Press Photo organisation reveals that more than 20% of submissions in the 2015 contest were manipulated beyond widely accepted norms. That someone like McCurry should find himself in such a situation is disheartening."
Jacques Leonard: "Ah, do I miss the good old times when Bolsheviks where the only ones manipulating photographs!"
Michael: "Interesting, very interesting. It was you, Mike, who first alerted me to the fact that RAW files are quite muddy looking, sort of like life. The first photo of the guys and the rickshaw is to my eye very like life, in that it is the monsoon and everything does get muddy and sodden, downbeat, including the light—until the sun comes out, and then the greens knock your eyes out, as do the signs, the shirts, and the saris. So I'm less displeased by the hypersaturation as a lack of fidelity to journalistic standards than as a lack of fidelity to a kind of light. It's as if the photographer has seen, not what was in front of the camera, but what was on every glossy ad page. Who knows, maybe it could be a professional deformation: if you depend on a public at that level and to that extent, you may end up following the public rather than leading it."
Andy DeBruyn: "I went to photography school back in 1975, the Art Institute of Boston. We had a very good photojournalism class. This question of manipulating images, including physically moving something in the scene came up quite a bit. If I remember correctly, the consensus was, including the instructor, that once you bring a camera up to your eye and you're looking through the viewfinder and selecting the frame, all bets are off. You're already manipulating reality. You can frame selected people in or out, you can use a telephoto to compress and make it look like they are more people at the event, dutch the camera a bit to make it more chaotic, etc. Burning and dodging can add or subtract drama. Heavy burning on the edges did get rid of a lot of 'distracting' items. Photojournalists are not exempt from these practices. They ask people to move, they re-position a visual item, flag, briefcase, etc. It's done all the time. The great photographer Eugene Smith in his photos of Minamata (not to take anything away at from the horror of the issue) darkened some of the images drastically to add the yoke of gravitas. I'm sure if Photoshop was around at the time he would have manipulated the images the same, perhaps even removing some background elements.
"It's all about selling the frame."
Stephen J: "This stuff is only important if you have a predisposition to want to change things to fit your reality map. I mentioned this the last time this subject came up... If you have an agenda about war and peace, about green nonsense, about leftyism, about civil strife... You want to be able to rely on what you are looking at. You want to be able to show this to the world and say, 'look what those people have done to us,' or something of that kind. Ask a dozen witnesses, what they saw when the bank was robbed, and every one of them saw something different, but broadly the same. Well Steve McCurry saw what he saw, but wanted to see something slightly different, in order to sell his art... So what? His pictures are just fine. Read the newspaper, do you believe what the journalist wrote, or was it just his opinion, or more likely, his reworking of a press agency's report? Truth is very different to everyone, and impossible to pin down."
Mike replies: Really? Is it? So before you sit down in a chair, you're uncertain if the chair is really there? Look at those two pictures by McCurry again. Do you believe the laughing man in the rickshaw was there in the rickshaw during the fraction of a second when Steve McCurry took the photograph, or do you believe he wasn't there? How much certainty do you have of your answer—none? Do you have to throw up your hands and give up on the question? Do you find it impossible to pin down the truth?
Graham Byrnes: "I really don't care much, but I find it amusing that in almost all regards, I prefer the first version."
shelley Stallings: "I have no problem stating that I prefer the second print and so no issue with the 'manipulation' of the original image. I do not see how the photographer changed the basic story the first image was telling the viewer. Removing distraction which do not change 'the story' is fine with me. Changing exposure, saturation, contrast to have the image 'look' like what the photographer 'saw' in his/her mind when the image was captured is also fine with me. In journalistic photography, the photographer should not manipulate the image so the story is so changed the meaning is lost."
Florian Kleinefenn: "I think the first original picture was very good, imperfect, with lots of 'subject noise' (things disturbing the initial picturing intention). Perfection seems to me most of the times boring. When a picture transports only intention, we don't get the world, which is much more complex than human will. I prefer by far the first unretouched (?) picture of the rickshaw because of its relationship between intention and accident. The alterations just made it academic."
John Camp: "I'm an absolutist when it comes to photojournalism: don't mess with the picture. If you're using photography for another purpose, then I don't mind the manipulation, and in fact, I expect it. I can promise you that ninety percent of the houses you see in real estate photos don't look like the photographs in the brochure; and that ninety percent of the actresses you see in publicly shots don't look like that.
"But the lie is never in the photo—the lie is in the presentation by the photographer. If the photo is presented implicitly or explicitly as the unvarnished truth, and its been varnished, so to speak, then somebody's lying. It's not the photo, which can't lie, because it's just paper and ink. It's the photographer.
"In regard to the [McCurry] photos, it seems to me that somebody was making some pretty good aesthetic judgments. That cart full of apples or whatever they are, on the right, really pulls your eye in that direction and away from what should be the center of interest. Getting rid of it brings you back to the main focus of the photo, and the red shirt, with the legs removed, does the same thing—pulls your eye right to the center. I'd have to say, by the way, that this story does not particularly surprise me. McCurry's photos, and indeed many National Geographic photos, have always looked 'processed' to me. And, of course, NatGeo has been caught at it before, as in the famous photo in which they moved the pyramids to improve the composition of a photo (a cover shot, I believe.)"
Steve L.: "It's anyone who says McCurry shouldn't be allowed to make personal artistic photographs because Wikipedia says he's a 'photojournalist' that I find ridiculous. The rickshaw in the rain image is wonderful, I would have made most of the same changes. I have no problem with anything he's done. He says right in his response to Petapixel that he allows himself more freedom in his personal photography. That's exactly as it should be. And as far as National Geographic goes, I've been involved in photography for over forty years, and subscribed to the magazine for about the same amount of time. Not once have I considered it a 'news source.' It wouldn't bother me a bit if it turns out many of the photos from its pages have been 'manipulated.' That magazine is all about beautiful photography, and those kinds of photographs don't just fall out of the camera the way you purists seem to think they should. It'd be an ugly magazine otherwise."
Daniel: "Pixelography is a term I coined for the digital manipulation, usually far beyond most darkroom dodging and burning. If the image above(and others) are journalism—this is a major breach of ethics. Even though Eugene Smith did it—it is still a major breach of ethics. If it is art it does not matter. Not until you try passing it off as the truth. Lying in images is like everything else; it may be acceptable but it is still lying. 'Artistic license' is a whole different animal as it is interpretation and creation, not reporting reality in images."
Ken: "This situation reminds me of the changes that once got Art Wolfe in trouble. Like Wolfe, Steve McCurry was also rumored to manipulate and pose his subjects. But as with the Wolfe case, this crosses a different line.
"Having previously defended Steve McCurry's work—and having long enjoyed it—I am rather disappointed to see this. I most certainly don't agree with removing people who are in the middle of the picture, but I am not opposed to cropping out someone entering the frame from the edge who is half-visible. I also would not hesitate to remove a beer can from an otherwise very nice landscape photo. For me, cropping a photo and deleting minor pieces of trash/distracting elements are acceptable changes, while removing an entire person from the key part of the image that you display is not. Does that make me a hypocrite, because after all I am altering the picture too, even if only just a little? And where do we draw the line?"
"As for McCurry and Wolfe, I still like their work, but would never again consider either's work as anything but photographic art—with an emphasis on art."
Mike replies: Re "where do we draw the line?"—that is the question, for sure.
John Seidel: "Interesting. When I first saw this post, it took me a while to see the missing guy. Then I forgot about it. Coming back to it a few days later, I find, beyond the obvious contrast and color enhancements, an amazing number of changes. Starting from the left side:
- An awning is gone.
- Most but not all of another rickshaw behind the front rickshaw is gone.
- White area in background over left passenger's head is gone.
- Smiling guy is gone.
- Another guy peering past blue guy is gone.
- Blue guy's foot is deformed and something has been taken out between his feet.
- The telephone pole behind blue guy is gone.
- Green sign has had the color muted.
- Something on the ground next to the missing pole is gone.
- Person in red shirt in background is gone.
- Part of the shirt of that missing person is now something on the counter.
- Stuff that was on the ground around red shirt is gone.
- Stuff on the right side of shop counter is gone.
- Lights in the shop in the background are gone.
- Telephone pole on the right side is gone.
- Stuff behind the missing pole in front of shop counter is gone.
- The guy in white is partly missing, partly transformed.
- The cart on the right side of the photo is gone.
"I am surprised that I saw little of this at first glance. Photographers' choice, of course. Not something I would choose to do, though. Partly inclination, partly lack of skill with Photoshop. Mostly inclination. All photography is manipulation. We all choose where to stop altering reality to fit what we see in our mind's eye. And for those who think that there is a thing called 'straight' photography, eschewing manipulation for reality, read The Negative and The Print by Ansel Adams."