Tuesday, April 15, 2014

When will photographers assert themselves?

Another day brings another disappointing example of why the public doesn't trust photographers anymore.

The latest example is the atrocious Photoshopping of a "photo" in Washingtonian magazine profiling Jay Carney. The duplicate books are bad enough, but the inclusion of the boy's finger . . . ? That's just shameful. It's bad enough to pose the pictures, but at least posing like this is obvious enough that the viewer dismisses the possibility the image contains any truth. The Photoshopping is the kind of thing that has ruined the value of photography, making it impossibly difficult for it to be considered art, much less a source of objective information. Instead, it's just the springboard for mockery.

Likewise the absurdity of Annie Lebovitz's massive Photoshopping of Lena Dunham for Vogue. Jezebel did a relatively thorough discussion of the "photos."


I fail to see the point of using photographs for these things. Why not just take the Wall Street Journal or J. Peterman approach and use drawings instead? These are just recent examples of what has become common in advertising and "news"—reworking images has become the norm instead of the exception, and the practice makes photography into a third class citizen in the creation of the final "image." 

Straight news is the last bastion of ethics and respect for the purpose of photography, and photojournalists pay a high price for doing what mainstream photographers do without thinking. Pulitzer winner Narciso Contreras royally screwed his career with a digital edit of a pic that moved over AP. Contreras was an extraordinarily talented photographer, and history will be less informative without his documentary efforts.

I'm constantly surprised by how casually people make digital edits. When I switched from Aperture to Lightroom I was horrified by the number of utilities for "fixing" images, including the distortion inherent in lenses.

Photography is about reality, as captured with the limits of the tool and the light at hand at the time the image is made. That's what distinguishes it from any other art form. As Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida
Painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents are most often “chimeras.” Contrary to these imitations, in Photography, I can never deny that the thing has been there.
Barthes wrote that before the digital age, but to my way of thinking the substrate used to capture an image shouldn't matter, nor should it matter whether it's a news image or a personal image or a magazine image: reality is reality, which to me is the only reason to pick the tool of photography. The dynamic range limits, lens distortions, and accidents of composition are just part of using the tool, and shouldn't be a source of angst and Photoshopping.

For whatever reasons, today's audience tends to look for flashy over substance, which drives photographers to make pictures look like Dali paintings instead of the documentary images photography was made for. It's down to each photographer to resist that impulse and put substance over form. If we don't, we will soon discover that we are merely providing props for a Photoshop "artist" to assemble. History will be less informed, and people will no longer look at photographs as a memory, but as made up dreams, and the unique place of photography Barthes described will no longer exist.