A Photographic Mind

An inadequate explanation of my passion for photography

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

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Written by Robert Ashby

May 7, 2016 at 12:26 pm

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