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Twenty-Five Years Ago, And Now

Twenty-five years ago this month The New York Times Magazine published an extensive article that I had written on the coming digital revolution in photography, to which they gave the unfortunate title, “Photography’s New Bag of Tricks.” At that time there was no Photoshop - it would come at the end of the decade - but there were Scitex and other digital machines that major magazines were using for layout, production and, inevitably, image alteration.. National Geographic already had manipulated their cover on the pyramids of Giza (which to me is the beginning of the digital revolution as it affected photography’s credibility), and other magazine covers were similarly being manipulated.

My thought was that by alerting the nation and others around the world to the coming authenticity crisis in photojournalism we might be able to do something about it. I did not want to wait for the public to become so skeptical of the medium’s recording fidelity that photojournalists would lose their special status as credible witnesses. I always believed that photography was subjective, interpretive and certainly did not represent the “truth,” but I did think that its status as a societal and historical referent needed to be both safeguarded and illuminated. Those who would lose most if photojournalism was undermined were those with the least power — the people who needed witnesses to tell others what was happening to them. And the rest of us would then become even more unsure as to what is happening the world.

Unfortunately in the last twenty-five years we have done very little to establish and publicize guidelines, and now photojournalism is devolving into yet another medium perceived as intending to shock, titillate, sell, distort. My sense is that if we are truly serious about preserving at least some of its credibility — while making it clear that it is not representative of the “truth” — we need to take strong steps. I am still of the opinion, as I expressed in the After Photography book last year, that a special frame placed around the photograph (perhaps a thicker one) indicating that a photograph is “non-fiction” — meaning that it is subjective, interpretive, but the image itself has NOT been manipulated beyond accepted darkroom techniques such as modest burning and dodging — would be helpful.

As well, those images that are staged, such as photo opportunities orchestrated by politicians or other celebrities, would have to be labeled as such in the caption. Whenever possible the staging itself should be revealed by using a second image made from another vantage point to show that what viewers are looking at is not spontaneous but a media event (this second image could be placed under the first, and revealed by rolling over the initial photograph with the computer’s cursor). Or a single photograph can be made from a perspective that reveals the staging (the mob of press, media handlers, special lighting, etc.), not one that conceals it.

I do believe that the various bodies working with photojournalism - National Press Photographers Association, World Press Photo, photo agencies, etc. — as well as newspapers and magazines, should quickly consider such a step. Adopting and enforcing such standards would also help to distinguish a serious photojournalistic image from the enormous mass of imagery that we see now on a daily basis.

It is difficult to conceive of democracies surviving without credible witnesses.

3 Comments

  1. Tanner Young wrote:

    i love your idea of “fiction” and “non-fiction” photographs like the section of a library that you suggest here and in your book, but every movement needs an initial action for it’s re-active beginning. how do you see this taking starting, if at all?

    i also love the comparing of the two images from different vantage points in your book, but photography seems to have been hijacked by government and pop culture for this express purpose of the ‘publicity image.’ funny, more and more we live in the age of the simulacra and more and more we become complacent with it and accept it as the photographic truth of an event that never even happened except in front of the hijacked-cameraman-recorder!

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  2. fredritchin wrote:

    I think a few small publications can start by publicizing their standards. The wording, which will need to be worked on some more, might be: “We do not publish any photograph that has been physically manipulated in any way (elements added or subtracted, people made thinner or fatter, etc.) except for modest modifications in contrast as were done in conventional darkrooms. If we publish a photograph of an event that has been staged so as to appear spontaneous, we will alert the reader in a caption.”

    Or, similarly, the publications can begin by defining fiction vs. non-fiction (knowing that the two overlap significantly in any medium) and alert the reader of the differences while marking each kind of image as one or the other (perhaps with a thicker or thinner frame).

    Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  3. Stan Banos wrote:

    The black frame idea is a good one, and about as practical and realistic as making all car fenders a uniform height.

    Friday, November 20, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. We Use Technology: Fred Ritchin « Prison Photography on Friday, November 13, 2009 at 4:52 am

    [...] After Photography › Twenty-Five Years Ago, And Now [...]

  2. After Photography › Twenty-Five Years Ago, And Now | The Click on Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    [...] photojournalism is devolving into yet another medium perceived as intending to shock, titillate, sell, distort. My sense is that if we are truly serious about preserving at least some of its credibility — while making it clear that it is not representative of the “truth” — we need to take strong steps. [...]

  3. [...] “manipulated beyond accepted darkroom techniques such as modest burning and dodging” (quoting Fred Ritchin) simply asks for trouble. What exactly is “modest burning and dodging”? Somebody’s “modest [...]

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