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Tuesday, 31 May 2016


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And to make matters more difficult for the (photo)journalist, there often isn't one "real" world or position that can be reported. The current fragmented Syrian war is a good example. Some players and positions are fairly clear such as Assad and ISIS. But there are at least 7 or 8 ohher groups and positions that differ from all the others in terms of their goals and statements of "fact", Further, they are all a combination of religious, political and cultuiral issues. So all the reporter can do is report bombings, terrirorial gains/losses, statements, etc. And this offers little understanding to most people. It also makes avoiding apparent bias nearly impossible, since the perception of bias is often in the mind of the reader/viewer. These are the stories which result in much controversy and in editors' ulcers. So, if the photographer does non-reporing photos, still in their own distinctive style, give them a break. If it isn't presented as reporting, don't hold it to reporting reality standards.

I fully agree, as I said before, the problem to me is the "trying not to get caught". Often it ends badly. One other thing, I wonder if the new story teller/illustrator in this affair would be able to still sell his images to NatGeo or Magnum...

I'm not really going to get involved in the McCurry debate, only to say that I heard him speak in Zurich in 2013 and he came over very well - not the sort of person who would actively exploit his relationship with his audience.

The current post is interesting though - and it reminds me of the old conundrum of the historian, and "what is history?". It is obviously never objective truth. The facts are always filtered through someone's perspective, their cultural baggage etc etc.

No-one ever expects history to present the truth - EH Carr dismisses Ranke's idea that the purpose of the historian is to show "Wie es eigentlich gewesen" (How it really was) - and he is correct. We can never know how it really was - only how it is passed on to us. And I don't think we should expect any more of photographic reportage / journalism. Substitute photographer for historian

McCurry's dilemma is interesting. It's also mostly of his own making. The fact that he manipulated photos is less sinful to me than his apparent dishonesty about it, blaming others and then attempting justification. Remember Watergate? The fact that it happened was less important than the coverup.

But I don't think he can remake his image that easily. When Eddie Adams left photojournalism and began to do nudie pictures for "Penthouse" and Hollywood celebrity photos, it was a complete turnaround in subject and working methods. There was no mistake--Adams was no longer a photojournalist so his work could not be judged by the standards applied to photojournalism. McCurry didn't change anything about his style, subject matter or presentations. He still is identified as a photojournalist and he never attempted to change people's perceptions of what he was doing.

W. Eugene Smith is revered today for his body of work. However, he manipulated the hell out of his photos. However, he doesn't get a lot of condemnation. He is identified as an photo essayist rather than a photojournalist. Strange to me that McCurry never has been identified this way since he seems to fit in that category well. But his reliance on BS rather than being straightforward about the manipulation probably means it's a bit too late for his reputation to come out of this unscathed.

By the way, I think McCurry's fall from grace with the public is a longer fall and a harder drop than Bill Cosby's. Cosby's downfall is based on his personal shortcomings as a human being. His jokes are still funny despite him turning out to be a pretty wretched person. Like other wretched but talented individuals, Cosby's professional legacy will probably survive even as he implodes personally. McCurry's downfall is professional. Everything he has ever done in his professional life is now tarnished and his legacy is in jeopardy.

I always thought (and still think…) that Op-Ed stands for opposite editorial. It is the page (orignally located opposite the editorial page) where writers from outside the journal can express their opinions and biases. Those may or may not be the same as the journal's own, which are found in the editorial page, opposite the Op-Ed.

[You're right. Historically the editorial(s) (by editors or reporters for the newspaper, collectively or individually, bylined or effectively anonymous--often signed "The Editors") appeared on one page and other opinion pieces by outsiders (neither editors nor reporters nor readers) appeared on the page opposite the editorial. But nowadays most of the "guest" or opposite-the-editorial-page writers are in-house columnists whose work appears regularly in the publication, often for years at a stretch, so the term is more commonly interpreted as "opinion/editorial." --Mike]

I agree with you. Unfortunately, when you are ambushed and caught out your first reaction is defense. In this case it no doubt gave rise to public embarrassment and faux pas. But, what are our credentials that we should judge him? The guy makes great images; cut him some slack and let him live in peace.

In no way is my admiration for McCurry's work diminished. All this criticism for his use of Photoshop compares to someone who would fault Ansel Adams for manipulating his prints by burning and dodging in the darkroom. If that is how Adams wanted Moonrise over Hernandez to look, that is for him to determine. Same goes for McCurry. If McCurry was to 'shop' a photo in an attempt to change an important historical event, view from the 'grassy knoll' as an example, then he would deserve such criticism.

Wouldn't it be easier for readers to accept that National Geographic, Magnum Photos, The New York Times, Fox News, etc. are NOT objective, or represent just a tiny part of the whole?

Yes, reporting about an earthquake is straight forward enough but that was not Steve McCurry's job. Are dry facts all we really want? We all want information that is stimulating, and National Geographic has had a slant that many enjoyed and believed, but it was never complete.

I think you are hit the nail on the head I agree with you fully let's stop to use nails to crucifying Steve.

The first photo book I ever got was a gift of a paperback with McCurry's photos, of course with the Afghan girl at the cover. I liked it at lot, but it was not that book that spurred a later interest in photography. To me it was back then very obvious that McCurry was not showing me a real world.
What is too much editing? I don't know - there have been many insightful comments on this site, and I won't try to add to those. But what I am saying is that the spectator must be expected to have some judgment of their own.
Long before Photoshop came along McCurry was showing a very pretty world that was very far from the real world. Is that not obvious? This of course means he is not that interesting a photographer, at least to me.
Yet, I bought a small McCurry print a few months ago, and it is now hanging in my living room - and I have no intentions of hiding it somewhere. It has no people, just a building and half a car. But it has that color and composition that pops and this is in my opinion what McCurry do best. I don't care at all whether this photograph was Photoshopped or not ;-)

When I first got married, my mother-in-law bought us a subscription to National Geographic; that was in 1966. She renewed it every year until she died, forty years later, and then I started renewing, but I don't quite know why, because it's pretty boring and uninformative. In any case, I had hundreds of the things, all carefully arranged on our bookshelves, maps intact, and I'm quite aware of the evolution of the magazine's contents. You say National Geographic "inhabits" the world of photojournalism, but that actually hasn't been true for years. About the time they started accepting advertisements, and then had to start bending content to keep subscriptions going, they left photojournalism (or documentary photography, which is not quite the same thing) and became essentially an adventure-travel magazine not much different different than other popular adventure-travel magazines, except for its emphasis on photography rather than text. I agree that they pretend to be more serious than, say, "Travel" because they don't do long obsequious stories about new hotels, but fundamentally, NG is not much involved in photojournalism anymore.

'Don't be one thing while you let on that you're another'

Mike, please help!

I am clear as to your position on the extremes, i.e., McCurry in relation to 'that photo' and people who seek to 'get it right in camera', but I am absolutely lost when it comes to anything in between.

If one takes black and white landscapes, are they a fine art black and white photographer? If one clones out a wayward blade of grass in a macro photo, are they a photo illustrator? Adding vignettes? Straightening verticals or horizontals in urban photography?

I ask this in all seriousness as I don't think I've ever been so confused as to how I should qualify my work without being considered a fake.

[Well, I'm not an expert on all this, but I think it's a judgement call, unless you're a member of a profession and there are clear rules that apply, in which case you should follow those rules in letter and spirit. But I think from an ethical standpoint, the thing to do is to first get clear about what you're doing and how you're going about it, and communicate it to others if you (or they!) feel you need to. If you're just photographing for yourself and your friends and loved ones, anything goes, doesn't it? I can't see why not. Although I can't see why you wouldn't be open about it, either. I've read hundreds and hundreds of accounts of how photographers work, and I can't think of anyone off the top of my head who isn't open about it.

A litmus test for me personally (and I'm NOT saying others have to conform to this!!) is how I feel about what I've done. When I manipulate an image too much, it makes me feel kind of queasy...literally...I feel kind of icky in my body, and I don't want to look at the picture any more. I figure that's a pretty good sign that it's not the way *I* should work [s]. But I would never judge others that way.

Others might have better answers. --Mike]

I think it is just as simple as realizing that too many people at the top of whatever they are the top of, believe rules, standards, ethics no longer apply to them. It is all too common. I think it is the norm, and getting worse.

Thank you for this article Mike for it allows me to put a finger on why this particular bru-ha-ha has left me unpreturbed. I have never considered photography to be an accurate representation of life. At most, it contains a 1/125th of a second that even if unedited can be grotesquely biased. All photography, like painting or etching or any other visual media, is a form of story telling and we - consciously or not - are biased in our telling of our stories. Even my landscapes - by chosing what to shoot and from where to shoot it - tell a certain story that would be different from any other photographer's telling of it. A lone tree on a hilltop can convey many things - color? B&W? Sepia? Include the corn field near it? Crop it out in the view finder? and so on.

When learning about a news item, I do not rely on a single media outlet and let it's biases determine what I think. Rather I would choose to read as many different stories as possible and, by triangulation as it were, approach something resembling the truth. Lots of people don't like that level of uncertainty in their lives- it's why Fundamentalism is so dangerously popular after all - but it is the real way of the world. We can either grow to accept it or hide from it but it will still always be there. That's the only thing we can be certain of :D

Photojournalists don't change images with PS except to adjust basic elements as was done for decades with film. As a storyteller, not proporting to be news but more as "art" then more comprehensive changes can be made. If this is what Steve is doing I have no problem with that. He needs to acknowledge that approach.

"Tried-and-true" or false? "...take a fresh look and see for yourself..."

The Finance Minister in Brazil's interim government, Henrique Meirelles, photographed behind microphones during a press conference in Brasilia on May 20, 2016.

The Atlantic Monthly Group Photos of the Week: 5/21-5/27 (Evaristo Sa / AFP / Getty)

I said this in the first article about this some weeks back and a couple of other folks did, too.

The reason that folks have issues with what McCurry has done is really simple: his work presents itself as reportage/photojournalism when in fact, it is not. People feel duped and they don't like to feel duped.

It's the intentional deception that people people feel slighted by.

Annie Liebovitz is a visaul storyteller, also, but everyone already knows that, so they don't feel deceived.

'Would anybody have a problem with that?'
I'm pretty sure mccurry would.
And there's the rub--he was forced to back into that position, one he would never have embraced on his own. And that's in large part because he knows it would have lost him most of his audience.
Hence the lies. (Yes, lies.)

As a former assistant to one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time, I can't begin to tell you how much airbrushing, the photoshopping of that era, was done to many of his photographs. Yes I know he wasn't a photojournalist, but I also know for a fact that one of the greatest photojournalists, Eugene Smith used potassium ferrocyanide to do major work on his photos to remove altogether or to highlight a certain element in his photos. Were they wrong. No. They were just using what was available to them at the time to express their vision of a particular photograph. When Steve McCurry sees a photographic opportunity , he probably positions himself for the best possible angle & at the same time is probably thinking about things that he would like removed if he can't remove them by his lens choice, his shooting angle or a myriad of other uncontrollable circumstances. Does that make him less of a great photographer? Absolutely not, but I do understand the restrictions that are imposed by news organizations on todays photographers to present a total unbiased story.

@William Lewis:
This is one of best comments I've read so far...

No, Steve McCurry is no jerk. He's a successful businessman who employs people to do the editing work for him. He takes all the credit for what his employees do for him, and blames them for failures in pictures that carry his name. In my book that's ethically and morally indefensible.

And yet I can't really bash him as a photographer, even if I'm tired of his subjects. You see, when I can come up with something as good as this,


I'll feel more comfortable when I criticise his work.

Personally, I don't care how Steve McCurry approaches his art.

But here's the rub. Photographs always give the semblance of truth because it is very hard to control everything on the other side of the lens unless you are in a studio.

Landscape photographers seem to have carte-blanche to idealise their output to suit a particular market for picture perfect bucolic bliss. This is much the same market that was fed by landscape painters throughout the 19th century. They were romanticised, people WANTED them to be romanticised, and nobody minded very much.

In the modern photographic era there is always a temptation to idealise, even when the subject matter is not actually representing an ideal of beauty, but a preconception of some romantic notion of a place or people that is foreign and unfamiliar.

This is a bit more of a dilemma, because creating that ideal could also be construed as somewhat patronising and, in extreme cases, exploitative. Moreover, viewers of such images believe, rightly or wrongly, that they represent a form of truth because they are specifically NOT idealistic.

I don't believe the photographer is entirely to blame. They are producing a product that the editors and publishers want, and their readership demand. But in that sense, they are really engaged in a form of genre fiction that maintains preconceptions, not a full on and open attempt at escapism.

But singling out McCurry is unfair. The agencies and publications that trot out this kind of work to an adoring public should really carry the can for the 'deception', for it is theirs also.

To the above comment about Ansel Adams burning and dodging his prints of Moonrise over Hernandez, I wonder if the person's admiration would diminished if Adams had removed some of the buildings off on the left or decided the moon would have looked better over to the right a bit or maybe lower in the sky where it would look bigger or if he had decided he had a better shot of the moon in his Half Dome photograph and just decided to use that over Hernandez instead.

If you have studied formal philosophy you will know that when a debate like the Steve McCurry issue becomes endlessly convoluted and unresolved a basic assumption must be wrong. I say:

Making pictures out of light-sensitive materials, photography as it was invented, is not the same digital picture-making. Photographs are dumb material artifacts whose content is fixed by the laws of chemistry and physics. If it's in the photograph it must have been in the subject; and vice versa.

If you allow that digital pictures are, at at their heart, technology assisted paintings and drawings then Steve McCurry has nothing to answer for. The marks that make the picture go where the artist wants and not necessarily where the subject says.

I Have never considered NG to be a source of objective fact and nothing but the facts, as Joe Friday would say. I've always considered it to be stories from a certain perspective and that they take particular pride in aesthetically excellent photographs,so I'm not shocked that some of them aren't "straight". Aside from that I haven't seen the article with the photo in question but I have to wonder, how did removing one occupant from the pedal taxi, or removing a vendor's cart falsify the article that the photo illustrated? Are the alterations really germane to the credibility of the article or in this just a game of "gotcha"? Personally. I don't give a damn whether the taxi was carrying 2 people or 3 or 15 for that matter. There are more important things in the world to worry about IMO. As always YMMV.

You nailed it Mike. I haven't had time to comment here about the McCurry flap, but I'm enjoying your commentary.

"See India Through Steve McCurry's Lens." is a perfectly adequate title if you catch the pun: optical lens / cognitive lens.

Removing things from a photo isn't qualitatively the same as burning in the sky a little. And the necessity of selecting an angle, moment, framing, doesn't make a photo less 'objective'. Somehow, objectivity has come to mean the opposite of 'biased', but it didn't start out that way. Max Weber championed objectivity in social science a century ago, but he didn't advocate absence of opinion; rather, he insisted that the (inescapable) position of the researcher be made clear and explicit. Which is exactly what photographs do, with geometric lines traced back through the objective/lens of the camera.
We in our modern hubris insist on placing the person at the center of everything (which is what over the top claims of 'bias' accomplish). That is exactly what is so special about photography: the camera diminishes somewhat, if we are perceptive or honest, our certainty about being firmly in control, and makes possible a glimpse of a point of view near, but not exactly the same, as our own.

Responding to Bill Pierce: If as Bill says McCurry was photographing the religious leaders when his colleagues were photographing the battles, I might point out that events since the have confirmed that McCurry was photographing the truly important aspects of the story: the religious underpinnings of what would become decades of strife. Bill and his colleagues indeed covered the news of the day, risking their lives doing it. But give credit and value to the work of understanding historical context in a region benumbed by battles. Our readers also suffer from war photography fatigue at times. We also owe them pictures of understanding as well as pictures of events.

Yes indeed, just being clear about what you're doing is all that's needed. But, to belabor the obvious a bit, there's a reason why so many people aren't clear about what they're doing. Truth has its own particular power, and a lot of work -- not only photographs but also writing -- is lifeless without that power.

For me, the classic example is James Frey's phony memoir, "A Million Little Pieces". He tried to sell that book as a novel, but nobody was interested. It was a bad novel. When you know it's fiction, it's crummy art. Writing good fiction is hard. Frey's publisher suggested that it would sell if it were a memoir, and voila, he called it a memoir. This bad novel now (spuriously) acquired the power of truth -- and sold millions of copies.

So, now that we know McCurry's (recent?) work is photo-illustration, is it still good? I dunno. But I know we look at it, and are open to whatever emotional/artistic power it might have, according to a completely different set of criteria.

Every time I read about McCurry’s faux pas I think of Frank Hurley, another one amongst my all time favorites. He was the official photographer on the 1917-1917 trip of Ernest Shackleton and documented how their ship the Endurance was crushed by the Antarctic ice. A year later he spoiled his career when he faked a World War One battle picture by adding some elements. Was after the disaster with the Endurance and three battles at Ypres the battle at Zonnebeke not exiting enough? What was he thinking? Obviously he needed something catchy on the front page.

But what McCurry thinking is even less clear. Okay, it’s a standard image. So What? With an oeuvre like his? Trow it away! Better next time. Why put so much work into changing a standard image into a standard image?


(Shackleton’s diary South is one of the best travel books ever. And if you want also the best photo’s of Hurley you should get The Endurance by Caroline Alexander).

Steve McCurry still sells images from his extensive library of images taken during his years as a Photojournalist. The fact that he may (or may not) be actively contributing to that extensive library is lost on the buyer/user of said photographs. When he produces new work that walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is difficult to casually discern where the real images end and the manufactured images begin.

If McCurry were to cease his stock image sales from the years of photojournalism, then I can see the argument that he "WAS" a photojournalist, but as long as the library is active, he's still profiting from that job and as such is still what he is primarily known as.

This is why many writers use different pseudonyms for non-fiction and fiction writing.

One consistent theme on the McCurry debacle seems to be his lack of transparency in transition from photojournalist to visual storyteller. What would be the protocol for a photographer to announce they are transitioning from one type of work to another? Should McCurry have held a press conference sometime in the past to confer to his audience that "From this point forward I'm no longer a photojournalist, I'm a visual storyteller"? And who decides when this transition occurs; the artist, audience, NPPA? Is the artist obligated to label each image with a small PJ or VS in the corner. Not picking sides, just wondering how it should have been handled.

Steve McCurry is fine. The thing is, I painfully realised that he can't show us anything we don't already know.

If you don't want to "see" india as exotic, colorful backdrop for your vacation, you have to follow other photographers. Indian photographers, who document their own world. They will show us a world we don't even know exists, and wouldn't notice when it jumped up and bit us.

I like your concept of a "belief system" and the fact that we don't experience the world. We experience it through our belief system.

Hence, Steve McCurry being another westerner with a similar filter as mine - can only experience India as a westerner. He'll deliver pretty pictures that meet our expectation of an exotic country.

Mike, the first part of this article, right before diving into the mundane, is phenomenal. Thanks!

The several blog posts and associated comments helped me understand where I stand on this whole affair. I believe that whenever anybody achieves any level of cult status, and McCurry certainly did, some people start taking them for model. I don't, so I'm neither outraged nor do I feel betrayed.

I just admire photographers work, be it single pictures or a larger body of work. And I still admire many of McCurry's older photographs (I'm just not familiar with his late work). But that's because I find them hauntingly beautiful. It has never been for their informative quality.

So as long as he produces more beautiful photographs in his new 'career' I should be happy, right? Well, not so sure. The thing is, with film photographs I can be reasonably assured they depict things that really were 'out there'. And I find there is something... uplifting I guess, in knowing that such beauty is somewhere to be found, rather than being made.

“Responding to Bill Pierce: If as Bill says McCurry was photographing the religious leaders when his colleagues were photographing the battles, I might point out that events since then have confirmed that McCurry was photographing the truly important aspects of the story: the religious underpinnings of what would become decades of strife. - Posted by Jim Richardson”

Jim is right as to the important aspects of the story, but I don’t think, when we thought we were only viewing a Palestinian - Israeli conflict and to a lesser extent a local Muslim - Christian conflict, shots of the religious leaders expressed the new conflict to come as well as the Muslim bombings of the U.S. embassy and the Marine base.

I have another take I respect some of these guys in particular Bill Pierce to noe end. But it was my understanding that a member of Steve'sstaff was fired at the same time he says these are not photojournalism and he did nothing wrong. But will not do this again. Seems to me he made a fall guy out of his staff and yet stills aid he did nothing wrong. Firing someone for me is the ultimate hypocrisy for m all this not a photojournalist but someone had to be fired so he can look like he did nothing wrong but then said I did not nothing wrong. Someone lost their job and will probably follow him around forever. yet Steve will n o longer photoshop but did nothing works Somehow he did something very wrong and someone sleaze paid a price for it., I have lost all respect for this person

I stopped believing in stuff a while back.

I've said this before. This is not a debate about aesthetics, nor about artistic ethics.

It is about commercial ethics.

Was Steve McCurry making money selling artistic photo-illustrations based on his reputation as a realistic photo-journalist?

Why yes. Yes he was.

No one noticed that Steve McCurry had become an artistic photographer like Cindy Sherman or Andreas Gursky, nor did he take any pains to call attention to his new artistic calling. Quite the opposite.

Let's be honest. People were forking over their dollars, figuring they were getting a "Steve McCurry". That is, they thought they were buying a piece of realist photo-journalism from a renowned photojournalist with a famed eye for finding color and form in unaltered, real-life scenes like the old Afghan Girl portrait.

But they were not. The photos were sometimes heavily altered and changed, just the way a Cindy Sherman, or a Loretta Lux image would be.

The mealy mouthed explanations, evasive behavior, finger pointing and avoidance of moral responsibility are striking.

Mike, this article is why you and I are friends!

Note to readers: Mike and I have never met, nor even spoken on the phone, and yet, after so many years of reading this blog (and even having been published in it), I see him as a friend, which is why I photoshopped that word into the above sentence.

In a brief video that appears in a Montreal Gazette online article dated May 28, 2016, Mr. McCurry notes that the use of Photoshop to add sharpening or to color correct photos is common and not objectionable, but adding or subtracting picture elements is "not something that should be done."


That sounds just right and he is very straightforward in saying it. It appears Mr. McCurry is going back to the photojournalist role for which he is best known, and is explicitly accepting the prevailing limitations we generally expect for those who work in that genre. I'm glad to hear it. He has acknowledged that mistakes were made. If he gets his operation cleaned up going forward, and continues to share with the world the sort of powerful images he has long given us, the current muddle will only be a footnote. A good teachable moment.

I for one am happy to have McCurry cast his lot with photojournalists and not visual storytellers, useful as that latter group can at times be in certain limited contexts. Excellent writing on this, Mike, and thanks too for the many interesting comments offered by your readers.

As if he didn't have enough problems:


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