Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

The Steve McCurry Kerfuffle

Light trail, Arches NP, Utah

Light trail, Arches NP, Utah

“Once more, into the breach”.

Sorry, William.  But your famous line from Henry V seems to apply here.  Once again we’re going to debate the ethics of photo-manipulation.  The recent disclosure that National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry apparently “altered” a number of published photographs caused a bit of a stir.  The discovery that the famous photojournalist – the creator of “Afghan Girl” (1980, I think?) – was moving objects around, doing selective cloning, erasing people, and heaven knows what else in post-processing seems to have generated some serious shockwaves.  Photographic purists didn’t like it.  It just isn’t the kind of thing a “real” photojournalist should be doing.  Rearranging, or completely eliminating, what’s actually in front of the lens is, to them, a no-no.  

Another tempest in a teapot.  Again.

Not that I’m taking sides here.  I honestly don’t care what anybody does – or doesn’t do – with their photographs.  Even photojournalists.  So long as they don’t create an image that they want me to believe is a faithful representation of what they saw when it’s not.  If, for example, someone were to create a photograph from Area 51 that appeared to “prove” that flying saucers and aliens were “real” (when no such evidence actually exists), and then plastered that image all over the internet and social media (thus creating about a zillion converts who all now believe we’re being invaded) he or she has, in my opinion, crossed the line.  My line, anyway.  Your line might be different.        

I mean, who cares what the photographer does?  We all follow some kind of process when making photographs.  A process that usually goes from what your eye sees to what the camera records to what the computer outputs.  Or from what you see to your phone to wherever you want to send it.  The process, whatever it is, belongs to you.  There are no rules.  Nor are there any rules for the viewer.  Art, in all of its forms, is roughly analogous to the Wild, Wild West.  You can be your own hired gun.  You are your own law.

As soon as you look at my “light trail” image above, for instance, you know it’s not real.  It’s not a “faithful” depiction of what your eye would see in real-time.  It’s simply a long exposure that shows the reflections of a lot of headlights but effectively removes the individual cars from the image.  It’s what I wanted.  So you see what looks like a curving trail of light.  A manipulation?  Absolutely.  An in-camera manipulation of light.  For me, a metaphor for the millions of people who visit Arches NP, or any other park, during the year.

Want to remove people from a photograph?  No sweat.  A long exposure can do that too.

Canyon Cascade, Watkins Glen SP, Watkins Glen, NY

Canyon Cascade, Watkins Glen SP, Watkins Glen, NY

Although technically this one was done a little differently.  I couldn’t do a long enough single exposure to make the people wandering through completely disappear.  So I set the camera at the longest exposure time possible and took a series of identical shots.  When I got them all into the computer I opened them in Photoshop as layers in the same image.  Then I had to select them all, turn them into a Smart Object, and stack them.  If you do all that you can then pick the Smart Object stacking mode.  For this type of image “Median” seems to work best.  Magically, the people all disappeared.  If I’d had a strong enough ND filter (10 stops?) it would have been a lot simpler.  One exposure would have cleared the walkway.  

Either way, it’s a kind of correction.  I wanted one thing and the camera saw another.  So I corrected it.  There were always people there.  I suppose I could have waited for a clear moment, but it would have taken a while.  They just kept coming.  And for this image I wanted the walkway clear.  In essence, it’s a composite.  A composite of 5 nearly identical images.  

By the way, if you know something about the history of photography you may remember that early photographers sometimes captured urban landscapes.  In almost all of them you get the impression that the place was a ghost town.  There are no people.  Unless, of course, they were stationary throughout the exposure.  That’s because the plates the photographer was using required fairly long exposures, even during the daytime (ISO’s of about 10 or 20 maybe?).  So anybody walking, riding, or in any way moving just disappeared.  So these guys were doing exactly what I did.  The only difference is that they had to do it.  There was no choice.  But as far as I know no one has accused them of posthumous “photo-manipulation”.  

And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone claiming that people who are doing astrophotography are photoshopping their images.  Everybody seems to love a good Milky Way photograph.  But anyone who’s done them knows that they’re usually heavily edited.  The idea is to make those little pinpoints of light as bright and as colorful as possible.  They don’t come out of the camera that way.

The question, I think, is this: Is there a line to be drawn and if there is, who draws it?  When does corrective or creative editing become unethical editing?  Or even criminal editing?

I don’t know.  But if there’s a discussion to be had, that’s what it should be about.  I really don’t think Steve McCurry’s editing should have generated any more than a collective yawn.             




2 Responses to “The Steve McCurry Kerfuffle”

  1. E. Brooks

    That’s a tough issue, Paul, and I don’t know that I truly trust or expect any photo to be 100% “truthful” these days. Especially not with the advanced technology and photo editing tools available and the “pressures” today’s shock-culture society puts on professional photographers to deliver unique and jaw-dropping results.

    However, for myself, being a bit old-fashion perhaps, I do expect or at least want “journalist” to be honest and factual as possible. That goes both for those of the written or photographic variety. It also goes to their purpose in manipulating the photographs. Was it for technical reasons to improve the photographic quality or was it to present their own personal view or slant of an event or happening. That makes a difference — at least to me.

    I like both of your photos in this post..especially the second one.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Brooks. I think we’re in agreement. “Intent” is an important variable here. For all of us amateurs I think it’s pretty much OK to do whatever we want. As I said, there are no rules. It’s whatever seems personally “ethical”. Most of us cringe a little when we see images that are over-cooked or obviously enhanced more than we think they should be. But in the end, it’s really none of our business.

      For the photojournalist, however, “intent” is a lot more important. If the intent is to purposely mislead or misdirect, then I think it’s wrong. (The heavily edited photos and video pertaining to Planned Parenthood come to mind). But I also remember that the original photograph of the young woman kneeling next to the dead student at Kent State years ago was edited. In the original a pole in the background appeared to be coming out of the woman’s head. So it was removed. In my mind, no harm, no foul. The “meaning” of the image didn’t change.


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