A Photographic Mind

An inadequate explanation of my passion for photography

Archive for May 2016

It’s not the photograph that has to be trusted, it’s the photographer.

Following my post the other day on manipulated photographs by Steve McCurry, some thoughts on Don McCullin’s problems with digital photography.

Digital Photos Can't Be Trusted, Says Renowned War Photographer


Another FFS moment on coming across comments from Don McCullin about the issues of digital cf film (zzzzz… sleep coming on). The problem is that people fetishize their own working version of whatever medium they are talking about, they forget the problems of previous versions of their craft and its alternatives, and believe that any particular instance of a “veracity problem” invalidates all other methods and uses of the medium.

Firstly, there is no right way to do photography, just as there is no right way to do painting or writing or talking. Different people have different approaches and different outcomes. In the same way that I am not engaged by many of the genres of literature, but other people are, I am not engaged with many types of and subject matter of photography. I don’t read romantic fiction, very little science fiction and no war, horror or crime fiction. That doesn’t mean that there is no science, horror, war, romance or crime in the novels that I read, just that those subjects are not the main thrust of the stories told there. I find art that is purely conceptual in terms of its examination of the navel of its own medium and the mental mechanics of it tedious and uninteresting. Some people, particularly those who are following an academic or curatorial career, find that those types of work can enhance their opportunities for developing their authority. A lot of it is the equivalent of angels on pinheads that the religious authorities used to agonise about.

Secondly, if we think about photography as a way of telling stories, true or otherwise, about the actual or an imaginary world, then we have to compare the photographic method to those methods that came before. We could do the same for writing and speaking, the other main means of communication that we have. Before photography there was painting and drawing as visual media, as well as the plastic forms of sculpture. Were these endlessly criticised for being distortions of the truth because of the subjective creator and the mechanisms of the medium that they are using? No, and they are all now fetishised as “fine art” and endlessly examined for their true meanings and metaphoric content. What of writing – do we challenge everything that is written because of the subjective leanings of the writer? And of course, everything I say is always true isn’t it, because I always have a perfect viewpoint for what I see and memorise. No, of course I don’t. If others are to be convinced of the veracity of what I say or write, they have to know something about me, my reputations for not allowing myself to distort what I have seen and my mechanisms for ensuring that I have not been deceived myself by my point of view, either physical or mental. That thereby I can say something that is usefully accurate in known ways, and potentially inaccurate in known ways, so that we can benefit from the communication.

Photography is no different. A great deal of the possible distortion is not in the darkroom or the computer software, it’s in the chosen or happenstance point of view, in the arrangement or not of the subject matter, the impact, in Heisenberg’s terms, of the viewer and her process on the thing viewed and recorded. Most photography up to the 1950’s was as much manipulated in the set up of the shot as in the darkroom. Even McCullin was guilty, though infrequently, of that. Classics where there is some question of this set up distortion of what we see in the final image are Lange’s Migrant Woman, Capa’s Dying Soldier and a lot of Bill Brandt’s social documentary work.

All makers and creators have their own working practices and also their own agendas, explicit and implicit. Knowing the people, their working practices and the mechanics of the medium well enables us to take those factors into account when assessing and using what they communicate. And thus we can take something of value from their communication rather than just pointing out that all media and communications are distorted by the means and the motive of the creator and presenter, and therefore of no value.

And so to the question of the response to the tsunami of imagery that digital photography allows, and whether that undermines all communication through photography. Well, that is no different to the tsunami of digital news headlines or points of view or blogs or writing of any kind. We have to develop practices that are reputation and filter based to help assess the likely challenges to the material from various possible distortions that it contains. We are already doing that. We restrict incoming content to known sources, whether personal contacts or organisations attempting to get our attention. We filter in varying ways. I take no notice of material from the Daily Mail – I expect it to be so distorted by a frame of reference that I do not credit it with validity, that I see no point in engaging with it at all. I do not “friend” people in facebook that I have not had some interaction with or some common contacts. The same on LinkedIn etc., etc.

These are the same sorts of mechanism that we might have employed before the ages of writing, before printing, before the digital age. When all we had was verbal – gossip and sermons essentially, and used reputational and cross comparison mechanisms for assessing the value of what we heard. The same must apply as we build the reputation and channel credibilities of the sources of the communications that we attend to and find useful in our lives today, including digital photography.

(I originally wrote this back in November when the Guardian published their article, but didn’t post it until now).

Written by Robert Ashby

May 11, 2016 at 7:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Spot the differences

There has been a little debate recently about Steve McCurry’s photographs (2,3).   Petapixel has an article about changes in some of Steve McCurry’s photographs on his website (1). Here is one of the before and after pairs:

Botched Steve McCurry Print Leads to Photoshop Scandal

How many differences can you see children? Well, there are 9 that I saw, aside from the significant changes of contrast and saturation.

2 people edited out
2 people edited to enhance composition
2 carts edited out
3 distracting background details edited out

So how do I feel about this Steve McCurry photograph that has been significantly edited to enhance its composition and engagement? What are the implications for me in responding to McCurry’s work and more generally in the continuing debates about altered photographic images?

There is no question that it is a stronger image with the changes. Also that the meanings and messages are not particularly compromised, and the questions of why there are two people riding (actually four) and one pushing, and why the hood is not in use despite the rain, remain unaltered. Edited, it’s a nicer, more engaging image. More marketable no doubt. The original has some mildly interesting documentary aspects. The amended image is less documentary and more visually appealing – less informative than decorative.

This is a general issue that some people have with Steve McCurry’s imagery, whether photoshopped or not. That they are very carefully composed, almost “staged”, for a particular version of the world. In individual cases it may not matter. No-one is demeaned or affected by the use of the revised image. It is not regarded as important evidence of anything. In terms of a view of the world that is represented by his body of work, or particular series, subsets, of his oevre, I am afraid that I distance myself from it. I have always had a mild suspicion of it.

Now, the petapixel article clearly states that McCurry regrets that the changes have been made to certain images, and that they have been altered “by his studio” without his personal intervention. But what this says very clearly to me is that there actually is a McCurry view of the world, which is targeted at his commercial customers and audiences, and that his staff were ensuring that his images met this objective stylistically. That they were recognisably “McCurry” images, that they were suitable for his audiences.

But do we need to enhance, simplify, saturate our world in order to experience it as interesting, beautiful, wonderful and worthy of our engagement? My question is less about the truth of an image to what was before the photographer when he pressed the shutter, than of what the processing says about how we see the world, as mediated by the commentators and media through which we get a great deal of our information about the world on a daily basis.

It’s not just about the likes of HDR and other techniques, which may also make an image more visually strong and appealing, but are not what the world is about. I hate HDR as crass and gauche, I enjoy the world as it is. I don’t need in-yer-face visual enhancement and strong compositional technique to engage with or enjoy an image, its subject, meanings and messages. I don’t even want less obvious, but more subtle interventions in the images. Some people do apparently. There is a market for that, but not one that I am part of. I have what a lot of people consider a large collection of photobooks, but there isn’t a McCurry book in there.

So I will continue to see Steve McCurry’s images as slightly suspect and be wary about the emotive and visual responses that I may have to them, being aware that they are “McCurry” images as much as what their subject is about, whether they have been heavily edited or not.

Original articles and sourcing/comment

1. Petapixel article
2. New York Times magazine article
3. Photoshelter blog article

Written by Robert Ashby

May 7, 2016 at 12:26 pm