In a recent article Kate Winslet is described as “not a fan of Photoshop, preferring to remain as natural and real as she is in the flesh”. The most recent brouhaha is about a movie poster for the soon to be released film Romance and Cigarettes (note, the movie’s web site currently redirects to MGM’s site).
Kate it seems, has a bit of a history with being “excessively” retouched. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say poorly-retouched. There is a difference.
The British issue of GQ magazine went too far in Kate’s opinion: “The retouching is excessive. I do not look like that and more importantly I don’t desire to look like that”.
This GQ magazine cover was digitally altered, says GQ editor Dylan Jones in this BBC report. Of the cover photo, Kate said, “I actually have a Polaroid that the photographer gave me on the day of the shoot… I can tell you they’ve reduced the size of my legs by about a third. For my money it looks pretty good the way it was taken.”
While Kate’s experience of being retouched poorly or excessively in Photoshop is not of earth shattering proportions, the subject of the ethics of digial imaging certainly is. This story is not intended to offer any definitive guidelines, but rather to open up a subject worthy of discussion. So, for the purposes of fostering that discussion, Comments & Pings have been turned on. That means any registered readers of PSN can post comments. Note: the comments will be moderated. We will not accept for publication, any comments containing profanity, vulgarity or personal attacks. The purpose of allowing Comments On is to allow people to air their views.
The ethics of manipulation goes back a long time in photographic history. In Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach by Paul Martin Lester, Hippolyte Bayard (yes, that really is his name) is credited (or blamed) for the “First Faked Photograph”. From Chapter Six–Picture Manipulations, Lester writes:
“Early photographic history is filled with artists-turned-photographers who set up situations with models and backdrops and made elaborate compositions from several negatives. Although he is seldom given credit, Frenchman, Hippolyte Bayard discovered a useful photographic process independent of Daguerre and Fox Talbot in 1839. Frustrated by the lack of recognition, Bayard made the first faked picture and caption combination in 1840. He made a photograph of himself posed as a corpse and wrote on the back of the print, ‘The Government, which has supported A Daguerre more than is necessary, declared itself unable to do anything for M. Bayard, and the unhappy man threw himself into the water in despair.’ Two years later, the Societe d’Encouragement pour I’Industrie Nationale gave Bayard a prize of 3,000 francs (Gemsheim, 1969, p. 87).”
Edward Curtis is also known to have manipulated the images he produced for his books. The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis “is one of the most significant and controversial representations of traditional American Indian culture ever produced” according to the web site that houses the Library of Congress collection of Curtis’s work.
One image in particular, In a Piegan Lodge, 1910–Volume Six, Portfolio Plate 188 is a prime example.
On the left is a contact print from the original neg, on the right is the image as reproduced in the folio.
Details of the before and after.
It seems that Curtis didn’t think the clock was “Indian enough” although the Indians pictured would have considered the clock a treasured possession.
Debating the ethics of digital manipulation is really no different than the issue of photographic manipulation or alteration in general. However, with Photoshop, a skilled retoucher can do such a good job of altering reality that there is little or no easy way to detect it.
The media is fascinated by this. Retouching and digital manipulation is the subject of considerable media self scrutiny. See the article Extremely Perfect from 48 HOURS Investigates.
Kate Betts, former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, says most fashion pictures are retouched nowadays. But what can a good retoucher do?
“A good retoucher can basically make the person in the picture look better, enhance the way they look,” says Betts, who was also a former top fashion editor at Vogue. “They can do anything. They can open eyes wider, make them brighter, change the shape, contour the face a lot.”
As a practiced Photoshop professional, I would say this is essentially a gross understatement. While the statement : “They can do anything” is true, the explanation falls far short. By anything, it should be understood to mean quite literally – ANYTHING. The only limits are imagination, time & budget.
By way of explanation, magaizine editors often use the term “photo illustration”.
On a very recent edition of Newsweek, Martha Stewart is “pictured” on the cover. USA Today wrote about the cover, “Is it real? Or is it Martha?” and quoted Assistant managing editor Lynn Staley as saying: “Anybody who knows the (Stewart) story and is familiar with Martha’s current situation would know this particular picture was a “photo illustration”. This was supposed to validate and justify Newsweek’s alteration of Martha’s cover image. But can the term “photo illustration” conceptually compensate for the perception that the photo was “real”? Do people actually read lines of text when looking at a photographic image? Of course not. Reading and looking at photos are essentially two entirely different cognitive processes.
So, how are people expected to judge photographs today? It generally boils down to the context in which the photograph is presented. As a long time advertising photographer I can tell you that in the ad biz, pretty much anything goes. In fine art photography, the only rule is to break all rules.
In journalism, however, the stakes are considerably higher. Two years ago, this month Brian Walski, a staff photographer covering the war in Iraq was fired by the LA Times for using Photoshop to combine two separate photographs and present them as one. While he admitted that he did take two images and combine them in Photoshop to get the point he was trying to convey, Walski crossed the line set forth by the LA Times and was fired. The old adage that the camera never lies is more accurately stated as the camera always lies. But in journalism circles, what he did was the kiss of death–see Manipulating Truth, Losing Credibility by Frank Van Riper of the Washington Post.
My initial reaction when I first saw the images and heard about the controversy was to think, “that was a really bad Photoshop job”. My next reaction was why would he bother because the addition didn’t really add anything.
His dismissal was not universally condemned though. See this essay by Pedro Meyer from ZoneZero “The LA Times fires a photographer.
You decide. . .
These are the two original images. . .
that were combined to create this image.
When interviewed by Photo District News (not available online) Walski said: “When I saw it, I probably just said, no one is going to know. I don’t know. I’ve tweaked pictures before—taken out a phone pole. It’s not a common practice, but you can do it. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I imagine they’ve done it here and there. This was going overboard—taking pictures and putting them together. I think it’s just that I wanted a better image. Then when I did it, I didn’t even think about it.”
LA Times policy forbids altering the content of news photographs but doesn’t define precisely what the term “content” means, just what is acceptable and what crosses the line–and who really is qualified to judge?
The National Press Photographers Association has this policy regarding the “Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics–NPPA Statement of Principle”
Did Walski “deceive the public”? And what about Patrick Schneider of The Charlotte Observer? In 2003, three images that won awards that were rescinded by the the North Carolina Press Photographers Association. The board rules that the photos had been altered by “overly darkening some portions in the digital editing process”. Not only were the awards rescinded, Schneider was suspended for three days without pay by his employer, The Charlotte Observer. But the story is not so cut and dried.
From an essay by Pedro Meyer in ZoneZero, “In defense of photographer Patrick Schneider and the fictions of a “Code of Ethics”
Pedro says: “We find the behavior of many of the photojournalists whose names appear below who have passed very ill advised judgment on Mr Schneider, as well as many of the picture editors in their corresponding newspapers who share their views, to have reached such an incredible low point in this ongoing debate about the veracity of images in photojournalism. We might be reaching the dark ages again”.
Again, you be the judge. . .the original image is on the left, the altered image on the right.
“With the arrival of Photoshop, many photographers and editors suddenly started to lose their ethical compass. The most famous early example was National Geographic Magazine moving a pyramid to make for a better composition. “A Day In The Life of America” which was intended to present the best that photojournalists could produce, decided to add a moonrise above a cowboy’s head because it looked better on the cover.
And then of course, there is the famous example of Time Magazine darkening the complexion of OJ Simpson. In short order photographers and even editors found that they ignored “reality” at their peril. The most infamous recent example was the photograph that was digitally manipulated by LA Times photographer Brian Walski in Iraq. Generally, the ethical standard on manipulation has been clearly understood by photojournalists. You simply may not remove or add elements to a photograph that were not there. Do it, and you get fired, and have a really hard time finding another job.
However, the issue of dodging and burning, which harkens back to the old days of wet darkrooms never really has been a big issue. This was considered to be “artistic license” and in many cases was encouraged.
But suddenly the gods of political correctness have descended in North Carolina, saying “you can’t do that any more!” Well, I’ve got news. We are just arriving at the tip of the ethical iceberg.”
As a result of the Schneider controversy as well as public scrutiny, NPPA has issued a revised and “Modernized” Code of Ethics.
Number 6 says: “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context.”
Does that clear things up for you?
So we find ourselves in a dilemma–we have wonderful tools to create images, new digital cameras and photographic digital printers and powerful tools such as Photoshop and we are expected to do what–nothing? I don’t think so.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is both a perplexing and complicated issue. I’ll also suggest that nothing written now or in the near future will put an end to the debate–there are no simple solutions to problems as complex as these. I will suggest, however, that the ultimate answer may distill down to a question of honesty, integrity and oddly enough, Photoshop skills–knowing how to do only those things you really want to do with the discipline to go no further.
Regardless of what you are doing though, I would encourage craftmanship and skill. And, for heaven’s sake, if you are retouching a photo of Kate Winslet, do a good job. She’s had more than her fair share of poor Photoshop experiences.