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Thursday, 12 May 2016


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Gregory Crewdson springs to mind almost immediately. There's a man who puts the capital S in the staged photography.

Everyone talks about photography as if it were an easily contained, self defining thing. A bit like painting. It's not though - it's a multitude of uses for images produced with photographic apparatus. Difficult to pin down

Readers might be interested in this essay I wrote that discusses (approvingly!) staging and paying of subjects in documentary work


These recurring reminders that the ethics of photojournalism might not apply to all forms of documentary photography are important not because they motivate us to want better enforcement of those ethical standards but because they help to reveal that those ethical standards are arbitrary (cropping anyone?) and have never delivered on the false promise of objective truth.

The problem with this is that pesky guise of photojournalism where "illustrators" have to be explicitly defined as such.

Timely and far better than my limited ability with words.

I have mixed feelings about this. As a rule, I like to manipulate as little as possible, i.e. I would not have Photoshopped out the guy in the background, but when I do I try to make the manipulation as un-obvious as possible. I recognize that cameras don't 'see' the way we humans do and photography is primarily about seeing for me. A camera 'sees' everything you point it toward. We label that camera seeing as "objective" but that is a human judgment. We could just as easily say "indiscriminate" if we chose to put a negative spin on how the camera sees instead of a positive spin.

Humans see subjectively. We pay attention to that which has meaning for us either because we like it, or because it is somehow threatening to us. Moving objects get our attention as do brightly colored things. It is a survival function. There was an interesting video made some time ago that shows up on the web periodically in which there is a group of people passing a ball around and the viewer is instructed to keep their eye on the ball. At the end the viewer is asked if they saw the gorilla. There was a guy in a gorilla suit who walked right through the group of people passing the ball. I missed him (as do the vast majority of people who see the film without being told in advance about the gorilla and I have been doing photography (seeing intently) for over half a century.

Should a photographer be honest about editing out things if asked? I'd say yes but I also wonder if we aren't being too strict about "honesty" in photographs. Does it really matter that the guy in the background was edited out? Does it somehow change the story? If it was evidence in a legal proceeding obviously but for a magazine story?

Like it or not, every digital photo out there is edited to one degree or another. Digital cameras all shot in RAW format which can't even be viewed without converting to some other format. Even the preview on the LCD is a conversion. That involves modifications to tone, hue and dynamic range either in camera or in "post processing". It often also involves correcting to lens distortion. Perhaps we need to get over the idea that photographs are inherently "honest" and then decide what level of honesty is required for the particular situation.

I'm about half way through reading An American Century of Photography, and this history overview reveals the struggle (and purpose) to make photography a legitimate part of the art world. It seems that since other art forms allow for removal or addition of elements in their art (a painter might include a bird in a tree or a sculpturist might leave off a head), then photography art (or photo-art versus photo-journalism) ought to be allowed the same latitudes. And as you say Mike there should be no bones about it in describing such to the photographer's audience.

Morgan Fairchild...

[I almost titled the post "Steve McCurry is Married to Morgan Fairchild," but I chickened out. (Plus, it's now an older-person reference....) --Ed.]

Maybe that's just me, but I feel there is a strong and clearly defined difference between cloning in/out stuff and manipulating - digitally or in a darkroom - colors, tones, contrast etc.

Like you pointed out, cloning in/out stuff* transforms a picture into an illustration.

*besides small things like dust spots or the odd minuscule piece of trash you couldn't see when photographing the scene (emphasis on "minuscule"; you can't remove big chunks of trash and pretend that that is still a truthful picture of the location).

Manipulating colors, contrast etc. instead is, IMO, an essential mean of expression for a photographer, and unless you shoot on slide film this is as well a necessity. No digital raw file, no film negative (color or b/w) will give you a decent picture without a huge amount of enhancing / interpreting of the results.

It's not a fault: these - raw files, film negatives - are supports engineered to compress the high contrast of real-life scenes into a manageable medium, being that a piece of film or a sensor.

For those that don't have any darkroom experience, just look at the amount of work it went in printing the masterpieces of the '60s or of the '70s that we all know:


I agree with you about the wholesale manipulation of images that are passed off as "real," which seems to be the case here. And I have never thought much of overly Photoshopped landscapes and other photos that did not pretend to be reportage. "Surreal" HDR photos? Meh. Just a treacly mess. Once one knows the magician's trick it's not magic anymore.
On the other hand, as a former painter who embraced photography while a student for its speed and veracity, I'm drawn to digital imaging for its painterly qualities: I can adjust color and tone in local areas easily to subtly affect areas I want to enhance or suppress and remove unwanted color casts. I don't think I overdo it; I try to keep things subtle. Perhaps I'm still something of a liar, but when has photography ever told the truth?
As I think about it, this notion of veracity cuts close to our anxieties about digital manipulation. We believe photographs because they're made with a machine, no human intervention between the subject and the image. But the machine, unless it's a security camera (and even then it's aimed by a person), is controlled by a human who has an agenda and chooses what to include in and exclude from the frame, what lens to use and where to focus. So perhaps we're most upset because at last the wizard has been revealed?

My own personal credo comes from two years of improv classes that I took over 20 years ago. The guiding rule for improv is: "explore and heighten." You are trying to find the comedy and emotion in the scene that the group has been presented with. If the scene isn't working, find another scene.

In photography, it means to me, if you can't find the drama, beauty or emotion in a photo pretty much as taken, then take another photo.

But again, it's a personal credo, and I'm simply an amateur photographer.

A similar issue comes up with music. Recordings... especially classical music recordings, while true the score, are not representative of real life live performance. Everyone now is expected to play every note perfectly... a feat most strive for but never achieve. The digitalization of music made it even worse with the manipulation of sound after the fact. (A saxophonist I knew was recording a new concerto and had all the key clicks digitally removed.)
Today's photography is more and more about the post processing and less and less about the original content. Photos with any flaws left in are criticized by the new elite (photoshop post op wizards). Composites are now winning contests and a new standard of "perfection" is robbing us all of the glorious imperfections of the world.

I don't have an ethical issue with post processed images (outside of photojournalism) but like you, I'm just not terribly interested. I watched a video by Ben Von Wong about his "epic" photography recently, and I'm very impressed by the work he does to pull people together to create his results. I find the process far more intriguing than the end result.

Similarly, I can find something to appreciate in an abstract image; in a print as an object, a bounded, two-dimensional image, but that's not really why I look at photographs.

My appreciation comes from what's intrinsically unique about photography; from the fact that this print or image on my screen originated from something in front of the lens and the beauty of the image is augmented by how I interpret it. Knowing that whatever I see in the picture was in front of the lens can make me wonder or laugh. Knowing that what I see in the picture may not be all that was there or may not have been there at all takes away that connection to the real world. Now the image has to stand entirely on it's own.

Mike: When photography is presented as testimony to an event, such as in a journalism reportage context, I agree that its content should remain undisturbed even if it makes for an unattractive or incoherent frame. That's my personal feeling on the matter. Period.

But most of the most revered photography in the medium's history has not been created or presented as testimony. Any image where the photographer controlled the scene is "faked-up". That is, studio images are "faked-up". Portraiture is "faked-up". The vast majority of photography presented in the art world is "faked-up". So, in the absence of strong qualification, saying you're "...not too interested in faked-up photographs." is the equivalent of saying that you're not too interested in most photography, isn't it?

Personally, coherent, well-composed images that represent keen observation -- with a strong tacit implication of testimony -- occupy the apex of my pyramid of photographic admiration. But those are relatively rare birds.

The McCurry photo, and others like it, are impressive, sometimes beautiful, but they don't move me. I'm moved by photographers I trust, because I can identify with them and what they are trying to do, and so I know how well they've done it. Edouard Boubat springs to mind...

I've cloned or healed a few things out of my photos over the years, from pimples to bits of trash. Plus I often straighten and crop, and sometimes mess with vertical angles. Mostly I love to dodge and burn using either the brush or the graduated filter in Lightroom. In the end though I think I have honest photos, more or less.

I don't agree that the untouched "raw" photo is most like real life. All of the raw processors present us with a pre-processed file to some degree. DXO and Capture One make it look very finished from the start, vibrant and sharp, while Photoshop and Lightroom at default look a little more bland but still far from unprocessed. And some subjects under the right lighting are just brilliantly colorful, and I find the camera, at least my camera, has a hard time matching reality without some slider assistance.

Dear Mike,

I have HUGE problems with people saying, "Well, the photographer is always manipulating the scene (via the choice of PoV, etc.etc.) Hence, it's all falsity on some level and hence this whole journalist-integrity thing is just silly."

It's ridiculously binary thinking, entirely equivalent to saying, "Everybody lies to some degree, on on occasion or another, by omission or commission. So, you might as well lie whenever you feel like it, 'cause who can ever be sure what's true."

I mean, really! Sheesh.

And, I wrote this nine years ago. Still seems to apply:


pax / Ctein

Steve gets Zero respect from me and his craft, worsen by the fact that he's actually blaming an assistant.

Did you not take the shot? -What, you have no say in your own photos when it comes to editing them? What a lame excuse.

I have found these comments an interesting read. Being a direct person I have taken for granted that when I see an image, it is what someone saw and wanted to share, not an embellishment of what someone saw and wanted to share. So I wonder, if someone wants to share an image that has been changed, why not just say so. It would all be good. There is nothing wrong with expressing a meaning of what one saw or an opinion. As a last thought, if one shares a beautiful flower with you....is there not an implied understanding of what it is and its beauty?

I now feel the need to browse my digital archives and see how many decent images I can make excellent simply by removing things.

I do 98% of my photographing with film. (Don't ask me why: I just think it's more fun.) I believe in doing it right first time. Making a photograph without due care and then mending it in post-production is definitely not for me.


The scans from my last roll came severely overexposed. I don't know why: maybe it's the light meter that's getting long in the tooth, or maybe I'm simply beginning to forget how it's done. (Which could mean dementia is settling two or three decades earlier than expected.) Yet I loved some of those photographs. I'd be crazy not to rescue them, and indeed I did it by pulling down the highlights and reducing exposure in post-production.
Of course, if I were to get them enlarged, I'd tell the lab man to take proper care with exposure. Would that be ethically preferable to moving a few sliders?
By the way, I enjoy my conversations with said lab man a lot. He has a fascinating take on editing pictures: the criterion he applies to define his limits is what can be done to the pictures when using the enlarger. And then he applies this criterion to digital pictures. You can do lots of things inside these limits, but you certainly can't take grinning Indians off crowded bicycles with the enlarger. So I guess he kinda thinks like you and me...

There are just too many telegraph poles and parked cars in the world... ;-)

So answer me this - there's a dark area in the scene your photographing, there's a person there, your eye can see it. You expose in such a manner that the dark area goes black, the person disappears. You purists are telling me that that is acceptable, but blackening that area with the burn tool in photoshop isn't? Or cloning him out even? Give me a break. The end result is the same. A person was there, but he's not in the image. Your way isn't any better than mine, my way isn't any more devious than yours.

How about using your beloved bokeh? That's acceptable, but blurring a background with the blur tool in Photoshop isn't?

I could come up with twenty different examples, but you get the idea. It makes absolutely no difference whether the trickery is done in-camera or at the processing stage. The actual finished image is all that matters, not how you got there. And ALL photographs are tricking the eye. Every one of them.

"If you're going to stage pictures, then really stage them!" said the guy who turned the ceiling light into a halo. ;)

I am always honest about my use of Photoshop. My website (coming back soonish, I hope), included specific notes on technique. I don't shout it out, though--my website is about pictures after all, not photography. I hide it behind a curtain, but all you had to do to peek behind it was click "show shot information" (directly beneath the photo) to see exactly what the wizard had done, ala:

Focal length: 24mm
Format: Full Frame 135
Longest shutter speed: 10 minutes
Aperture: f11
ISO: 200
Misc info: Shifted (flat-field, no-parallax) panorama.


Focal length: 65mm
Format: Full Frame 135
Shutter speed: 1/200 second
Nominal Aperture: f4
Effective Aperture: f24
ISO: 100
Magnification: 5:1
Field of View: 7.2mm x 4.5mm
Misc info: 31 image stack

Equipment information was also provided (I won't quote it here, since my lists are exhaustive, even down to the camera strap), simply because people underestimate the sheer manipulative ability of lens, tripod, and especially LIGHTING. Though, looking at some of those lists, I note that I did NOT include Photoshop, ACR, and Bridge, which is an oversight I will correct when my website redesign is finished.

Bah Humbug

Do what you want - unless it is pure journalism. Maybe it comes from my days of advertising photography where we would carefully manipulate everything, people, product or food, atmosphere, light, film choice, exposure techniques, multiple camera setups for a single sheet of film... I guess I don't understand what all the kerfuffle is about.

Or maybe it was my time as a commercial "lab rat" printing others images - interpreting others work often to my own aesthetics. One photographer wondered why his images didn't look as good after I left the lab - not understanding what had been going on behind the scenes.

So when Photoshop came along I rejoiced. All my lab tools, ability to better control what I had been doing with multiple cameras... Then digital capture got good enough I didn't have to scan big transparencies... Rejoice again.

Now I work exclusively for me. I don't do journalism, I don't do a lot of massive removing or relocation of objects either but I reserve the right to do so! One of my favorite quotes goes something like "just before I take the picture I imagine all the work I will have to do in the "darkroom" to get what I am seeing in my mind". This is exactly where I am at.

I laugh when I go to "Art Fairs" and see booths that say "no photoshop" - who cares? And if you aren't doing your own printing, who knows?

I agree: do it or don't but own it. The only thing I really don't like is the near obsession with turning people of South Asian, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern descent into coppertone saints of the poorly paved road. Turn that skin tone at least hallway back to reality, please.

What really puzzles me is what was going on with the photo that was botched an d strted this whole ball rolling (see http://petapixel.com/2016/05/06/botched-steve-mccurry-print-leads-photoshop-scandal/)?

The only thing I can think is that the road sign was for the high jump -- but the cloned selection included a section of the sign.

Was this botched, an accident, or the work of a disaffected employee intent on le3aving their mark as they left the McCurry entourage?

Maybe photographers can learn something from authors.  Nobody freaks out when none of the events in an entire book actually took place.  It's called fiction.  So I don't think anyone should freak out when a photograph contains things which are not factually accurate.  Sometimes the best way to convey important truths is by not relying on "the truth."

Photography has forms of fiction unrelated to digital imaging or the wet darkroom.  Cindy Sherman and Joel-Peter Witkin certainly come to mind.  What photography lacks, perhaps, is the clear distinction between fiction and non-fiction, which writing has.  Given the nature, and most of the history of photography, many of us probably default to assuming that photographs should be non-fiction, but that seems awfully limiting.

Where authors seem to get into trouble is when they claim something is a work of non-fiction, but it isn't.  Perhaps photographers need to start classifying their work as fiction or non-fiction.  Authors who are primarily known for their non-fiction certainly delve into fiction, so a photographer like Steve McCurry, who is primarily known for photojournalism, is welcome to explore fiction with his work, but he should indicate when something is a work of fiction.  I don't believe that exploring fiction in photography, by itself, makes something less interesting than it naturally is, but I think misrepresenting your work is problematic.

Morality, I'm thinking once again about the question of photography-as-reality. Biologically, we all perceive the world differently. Example: about 5% of men of European descent cannot distinguish red and green. Isn't it astonishing that fact is never discussed in the photography community?

+1 Joseph Brunjes.

I find this whole debate fascinating. I'm not personally a huge post production guy - colour grading, dodge, burn and cropping where I haven't been able to compose entirely in-camera (which is always my aim).

I've never considered that dishonest for my own work, simply tools of my art and craft.

When I worked in the Audio/Visual industry I shot a shed load of colour slide film during the production of educational tape/slide programs. I guess that instilled a discipline in me of in-camera craft that is hard to shake off in the current - oh so easy, digital realm. Back then my boss told me to think of myself as a cinematographer - but only shooting one frame at a time! (Seemed to fit the medium well I thought).

Not that I want to take the moral high ground as, pre-photoshop, double exposure and film overlays were used as creative tools.

I'm learning a lot on this topic from people who can articulate more than I. TOP is awesome in this regard.

This conversation uncannily resembles the parallel world of political (dis)honesty rife today ...

Doesn't have anything to do with faked photos.
Or does it?


I know you like dogs.
I know you like pool.
What's not to like about this?

BTW, the threshold between what is "just right" and what is "too much Photoshop" is an always moving target.

And the interesting thing is that such target doesn't move in a linear, always forward fashion.

I was just looking the other day at some photo books from the 80s and the late 90s, of landscape images shot (obviously) on film. The stock varied, according to the authors, from slide film to negative film, from medium to large format.

The colors and the contrast looked almost unreal, even for a guy like me who grow up shooting film, simply because we are forgetting the real - as opposed as preset-real - look of many film stocks (or of Cibachrome!). And this was way before Photoshop (these were mostly darkroom prints).

We are nowadays so used to the washed out look we get from the digital files - washed out mostly because of the greater sensitivity in the shadows of digital sensors compared to film, other than the poor color response of said sensor compared to slide film - that we set the bar fairly low compared to what used to be.

Even the Flickr-fantastic typical landscape image of a rocky beach washed by waves at sunset still pales in terms of saturation and contrast with the way we used to shoot just 20 years ago.

So it's ok to fake or change a photo, as long as one is open about it? If it is on the sly, then it is not acceptable? Say SM had publicly disclosed that the photos in question had been changed, were then they more acceptable?

Mike, in reply to your comment to me yesterday... I do not have a predisposition regarding the existence or nonexistence of real chairs, if I see one that is not already occupied, and there isn't a cheeky schoolboy nearby, I can be fairly confident that it will still be there when I do my monkey impression and flop myself down into it.

As for the laughing man in the rickshaw, yes I believe he was there during that fraction of a second… I also believe that to suit McCurry’s artistic “license” it was better that he wasn’t there… My point remains the same…

I don’t care whether the picture serves “truth” or “art”, I am not that credulous that I need to know. In the same way that just because a Victorian child is covered in cack that his condition was proof that he was living the life of a drudge and that social change was needed… It might just have meant that Sunlight soap wasn’t readily available, or that power showers were not installed in every home.

Taking this theme to the extreme, Arthur Conan Doyle really believed in fairies because some mischievous lady photographers added them into their pictures.

All I am saying is that my default position is that no photograph portrays truth, it is merely art…

And the next thought is… Do I like it, or not?

In the case of Steve McCurry, almost always not… Far too stylised and chocolatey boxy, I much prefer the examples referred to in your first post on this subject by Raghubir Singh.

Even so, there is no guarantee that they are any more "truthful" that McCurry’s.

I don't think that there should be any rules in photography... It is those that go "off piste" that we remember, rules are for pedestrians.

If there is something that offends me, it's McCurry hanging out the word "art" while at the same time blaming someone else for the finished state of his exhibited work. It's like those academic scandals where Prof. Distinguished Fellow disowns a paper once it is found that some over-stressed post-doc faked the data. Yes, but his name was on the paper. He thereby swore participation and responsibility for the content. The disavowal reveals a much worse crime: routinely claiming credit for work that was not his.
If McCurry is in the pretty picture business, and if that implies the need for a team of technicians to create these simplified views of life... very well. Give them credit if they have artistic responsibility. If they don't... well, he should have looked at the prints, shouldn't he?

Photo journalism should be about the reality (or truth) of what was captured in the frame, not what whoever (photographer or assistant) feels should have been captured in the frame. Truths do not equal untruths.

Every picture tells a story, but very few are under oath.

Imho it is not so much about what a photographer does with the photograph but more about the perception and expectations of the person looking at the final image.

I think that given the history of photographs, there is an implicit expectation that the image was "true" at a certain moment in time. The image's color or contrast don't really matter.

If you know that the person that created the image is a kind of artist interested in image creation starting from a photograph, you just look at it differently and that's all.

However, when you don't know that about the creator, or when the context in which the image is presented doesn't make that clear (say exposition/competition of documentary photos) then the expectation will probably be that the image is a real photograph.

So in the end it is indeed about being transparent and managing expectations. Everything is fine as long as the creator explicitly makes clear he likes to manipulate his pictures. Disappointment is created when it is done without disclosing it.

if it's about the "strongest form of seeing", who's to say that the "seeing" stops after the shutter has been pressed?

A fellow I knew hated Michael Moore films. His biggest issue was that they did not present a "balanced" view. I kept telling him that Moore is not the 6 o'clock news. Did he really think that those Big Corps that were being skewered can't look after themselves?

Documentary work is not always factual reportage, although it had better show some objective information to be at all credible. It's often point of view work, which can sometimes be disguised as reportage. Sometimes, this is viewed as dishonest, sometimes it's viewed as eye-opening, depends on how it's done.

I may be mis-judging the context, but are the McCurry works presented as factual reportage? I don't know. But like others, when the photos are too beautiful, too perfect, I see them as idealized representations. Sometimes that works well, sometimes it doesn't.

I doubt it, BUT, what IF, McCurry had a disgruntled employee who was trying to get the photographer discredited/
Wouldn't that make a great story? An assistant purposely being ever so slightly clumsy in their PS work w cloning. Planting a time bomb....
It could happen.....
On the other hand his non-denial, denial in the PetaPixel piece wasn't exactly convincing.

“The program is committed to a broad definition of photography as a lens-based medium open to a variety of expressive means.”
Yale School of Art / Photography
Crewdson teaches there. The school has a long history of inter-relationships between the various facets of ‘art’ – allowing an ‘artist’ significant latitude in using concepts /techniques / technologies to accurately match their expression to their creative eye.
Perhaps this discussion should evolve to something like: is there a significant creative /philosophical difference between ‘photography’ and ‘lens-based (or even sensor-based) art.” Can they exist side by side, or is the difference too great. I would think
there would be significant difference in opinion between techo /purist photogs and more ‘creative/expressive /use any means to evoke the desired viewer emotion’ types.

The strange aspect of this debate, especially as pertaining to photo journalism, is that everyone has essentially accepted by now the reality that writing journalists in major media have a bias. Whether you start your day with NYT or WSJ, you can not and generally do not expect an objective statement of facts there. What you get at best is an interpretation of reality through the journalist view of the world. Why are photo journalists supposed to adhere to a higher standard? I am not making an argument that they should not, just that there is a double standard. Compared to what you see in written press or on TV (whether by the leftist or the rightist journalists), McCurry's crimes are not even a child play.

This whole tale seems less about photography than about human ego.
You are good at something, then comes adulation
With adulation comes ego.
With ego comes the belief that you are infallible.
With infallibity comes complacency.
With complacency comes mistakes.
Then you get caught and bleed.

Didn't Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King take place in Afghanistan?

Now every time I look at my NatGeo Instagram feed on Twitter I wonder what the original photo looked like.

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