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Tuesday, 30 December 2008


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Ms. Leibovitz is certainly not the only "big-name" photographer who leaves success in the hand of skilled minions. (I strongly agree with the anonymous author that her early work shines much more brightly than her more recent work.)

But I do not interpret this personal anecdote as the disgrace to Ms. Leibovitz it's clearly offered to be. To the contrary. Her success means that she now has the budgets to hire skilled minions who may anonymously bitch and moan on the Internet but who certainly grovel and scrape for the jobs, and who are just as certainly proud to be able to build her grace's vision from crap scrap.

I know I've spent too much of my life in Photoshop turning bad photos into mediocre photos. Now, when it's restoration work on an old photo I don't mind so much; but if it's because I wimped out on doing the work when I took the photo and am having to pay later, that I object to. And try to remember the next time I'm feeling lazy when taking a photo :-). Hasn't worked terribly well yet.

Once someone becomes a brand name photographer, people normally in a position to question and critique them simply seem to become accomplices. It's as though these "masters" can do no wrong.

For every worthy image seen in a magazine by any of these brand names, there are at least a few dozen printed that would end up in trash if produced by anyone else.

The editors and publishers of the magazines have, for all practical purposes, cast aside any sense of responsibility to the artists who are struggling to make it to the top, and continue to support inferior, even downright questionable and trashy work of the big names.

Mike, might this be a moment to give a tip of the hat to the professional retouchers who were an essential part of the photo industry in the days before digital? Many of those folks had extraordinary skills. Years ago I had the privilege of visiting a lab where "emulsion stripping" was carried out on large format transparencies. It required the hands of a surgeon and nerves of steel. The solutions were toxic and highly flammable. And often, there was an expensive ad campaign on the line. I don't care how tough it is to paste something together for Leibovitz, it cannot compare to what some of the pro retouchers did day in and day back in the dark age. Anyone who is curious about how it used to be done ought to be able to find a used copy of Kodak's "Photographic Retouching" (by Vilia Reed) online.

There's an interesting moment in the "War Photographer" video when James Nachtwey is working with a printer on a series of black and white photos for an exhibition. Seems like very much of a two-way street, with Nachtwey focusing on what he wants, the printer telling him what he can do. It's not like the master with her minions, but more like one craftsman with another, working out a problem.


I like his use of "Frankenstein" as a verb.

Well, if it rakes in the moolah, I guess it's all fair game for the big names to do it, since equally big name magazines and clients still pay for that stuff.

Makes me wonder, though, how easily they are blinded by the reputation of the big name photographer that they are greatly reduced to high-paying "yes men/women" and bypassing artistic scrutiny of the final product altogether.

I'll echo the comments of "latent image" on hand retouching. I've been teaching myself hand retouching on B&W large format negatives using pencil, dyes, opaquing, abrasive reducer, stylus and knife for a few years now, and I'm just starting to feel confident about it. The thought of shaving off thin layers of emulsion with a sharp blade was pretty terrifying at first, but it was an absolutely standard technique for many years.

There's no "magic wand" tool for this stuff. The hand retouchers had to be able to *draw*.

When the annual UK press awards came around the Fleet Street crowd loved the late Larry Bartlett.

"Nice shot, now just get Bartlett to print it and you're quids-in mate!"


I think it's easy for all of us to romanticize the big time photographer (or movie director, or rock star) as lone gunslinger, genius auteur. When in fact these are all team efforts with the front person getting all the credit. And let's not forget that the art direction for the calendar probably had a big hand in defining the image in the first place.

It's a great reality check to realize that there is a man behind the curtain in the Emerald City.

In her book "Annie Leibovitz at Work" she mentions the despair of her retouchers. I remember noticing the joins in the carpet of her "Hollywood Cover" group portrait that was printed large at the national portrait gallery it look like the various images had bee shot at slightly different angles. I still love the image.

The Lavazza image, stinker or not, is certainly generating more publicity for them than the wonderful super heroes campaign of a few years ago by Eugenio Recuenco.

Lets celebrate the good and ignore the bad.

Sounds like Leibovitz has her "shtik" down pat.

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