“Come and listen to my story about a man named Steve (McCurry) poor (world-traveling, cover-page-earning, National Geographic) picture-taker with some photos up his sleeve. And then one day he was shootin’ at some fool, when down from the sky came that editing tool.
Photoshop that is, red line crossed, big festuche*.”
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A world-famous, state-of-the-industry photojournalist named Steve McCurry, one of Magnum’s crew, worked for decades as, among other things, a National Geographic photographer.
So, anyway, he worked for years taking kick-ass shots, some becoming iconic, like the one (above left) of a lovely Afghan girl before a hard life altered her looks and likely life view. McCurry, at age 67, was, and is one of the great photographers and one many heralded as a photojournalism superstar. He shot life, hard and brutal, and we all relished his work and his courage. What we liked most of all was that his photos were real … they reflected the dense core of Earth’s underbelly for what it was, and … what? I’m sorry, he did what?
Oh, so … apparently, McCurry was caught “heavily editing” some of his images. Petapixel broke the story after after “Italian photographer Paolo Viglione posted a botched image from McCurry’s trip to Cuba he discovered on the Magnum photographer’s blog,” which “showed remnants of a traffic sign sticking out of a passerby’s leg.” So, that prolly didn’t happen in real life, or there would have been blood, or something. McCurry responded to the backlash, in which he was accused of having crossed an ethical red line, by deleting his entire photo archive from the blog. Yeah, that’ll reduce suspicion, Steve.
In April 2016, Gianmarco Maraviglia, founder and director of Echo Photojournalism agency, posted two photos on Facebook that show more than just heavy editing. Note the photos below, from his Facebook post. In the original, left, the colors are washed out, since it was cloudy and the camera interprets tones based on the amount of light hitting the sensors (much as the human eye does). There are four men on the 3-wheel tuk tuk, with a distractingly bright fruit cart and clothed man in the background. In the edited version, two of the passengers disappear, likely due to the editorial fallacy that simpler photos are always better (or maybe they were just too damned ugly). The tones are fixed, saturation increased, and color contrast enhanced as well. I’ve no issue with those editorial choices, as the editor simply made the men appear as they would have in full daylight, with shadowing. Yes, there is too much red in their faces and the luminescence of the man’s blue tunic is reduced, changing it from sky-blue to deep turquoise, but those are fully consistent with having used a “Kodachrome filter” in post-processing.
But here’s where the purists’ ankles got rankled. Two men were disappeared from Earth in a photo that purported to “document” “reality.” In addition, there’s no distracting fruit cart, the man in the background has changed into more background-pleasing dark clothes, and that silly electrical pole is gone. Eff the residents–they didn’t need power anyway. The second shot is subjectively a stronger image, but McCurry’s editing team clearly crossed the journalistic line there. You can fix tones. You can correct contrasts. You can even turn a light cyan into a deep Bondi blue if that’s what floats your boat, but offing people in the image and removing objects means this is an art piece, an illustration, not a piece of journalism.
And do you know how McCurry … that, that … rat … handled this ethical lapse? Do you know what he had the gall to say? He told Time Magazine that despite “years of covering conflict zones,” he now considers himself a “visual storyteller” not a “photojournalist.” He didn’t realize people thought he was telling a “truth.” He was just making a nice image.
Oh, okay, that makes sense then. It was just an illustration. We cool, Steve.
Well, we are, but the Associated Press, for one, is not. They have since made it clear that the AP “does not alter or digitally manipulate photos in any way” as that would be deeply not cool. Yeah, AP, and I’m fucking Santa Claus. Shut the hell up. McCurry also added some contrition, saying, “Even though I felt that I could do what I wanted to my own pictures in an aesthetic and compositional sense, I now understand how confusing it must be for people who think I’m still a photojournalist.” Translated: “Bite me.” He then pledged never to do it again.
All of this isn’t meant to jump on someone else’s (old) news or even to bash Steve McCurry. It’s mainly pointed at the hypocrisy of the whole editing/purist-bullshit debate. Let me be clear: I do not believe, at any point, what the AP quoted as their ethical policy is strictly adhered to by most journalists. Sure, they never took people out of the frame, but that’s largely because they couldn’t. Have you ever tried to erase someone from a 35mm negative strip? It’s freaking hard, even with white out. Like most photographers, McCurry’s images were in the hands of the editorial crew who were largely free to interpret the image as they saw fit. They’d have looked at the original shot above, burned-in the image to darken the passengers and the driver, increased contrast either via processing or with high-contrast paper, and if they could, they’d eliminated unwanted people not via Photoshop but by cropping them out, because somehow, that’s way more ethical.
The sole reason that photo editors didn’t remove people from frames in the past is because darkroom editing was tedious and mechanical. Editors weren’t artists; they were technicians who could hold a mask over an area to be dodged for a proscribed number of seconds and who could follow specific processes to bring the best from a photo. In today’s digital darkroom, those processes are far easier but the ability to manipulate the image is almost infinite for the artistic, rather than technical editor.
No one who’s proficient at editing, like, say, my wife, would ever look at a Steve McCurry shot and believe it came out of the camera that way. They were always edited, but within the norms of accepted practice. And that’s okay. In real life, people stand in shadows where you want light. People lean the wrong way into your shot or the light is too bright, the colors too faded, or simply the damned camera and film (now sensor and raw) are insufficient to interpret the image the way it actually looked. So what do you do? If you’re a professional, you fix it. Period. Think I’m in the minority here? If so, check out your average online journal. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Now, look at the professional, journalistic photos. I bet you at least half of them have been tonemapped in order to make them look more “dramatic” (in other words, super-realistic). No one is making pure photos these days except people who don’t know how to edit. And that isn’t the real problem here.
McCurry’s ethical violation wasn’t Photoshopping. It was not being truthful. It was years of having pretended that he had a magical camera weapon that could spit out Magnum-quality images without editing. No Camera Can. No Camera Ever Has. If you think being great means “doing it right the first time,” then you’re probably naive enough to think Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images weren’t too dim, too contrasty, and in want of editing (which he was too lazy to learn how to do). Be in love with mediocrity and call it purity, as he did, and I’m sure you’ll be patted on the back by all those of a similar ilk. So judge McCurry and then go out there and take your shitty photos and have pros laugh at you behind your back. And they will. On one of my first forays into a “professional photography” website, my work was torn to shreds by pros who considered it to be amateurish, unedited drivel. This was 30 years after I’d first been asked to shoot portraits or weddings. I could shoot, but I couldn’t edit worth a damn.
Learn the craft. Do the work.
Here’s a simple example to show what I mean in terms of non-journalistic photography and why you should love editing more than shooting (or, if you’re a novelist like me, why you should love it more than writing). The raw image (story, painting, etc.) is where you get the concept out of your head and onto something others can see. Editing is where the artistry happens, where it stops being a thing and becomes SOMETHING. It is where your song learns its voice, where people emerge from shadows and where you learn what color is for and how to paint with light. Editing is where it stops being The World and becomes Your World, where we give voice to our inner selves and put it on the damned page where god meant it to be. If you weren’t supposed to fix your shit, you’d have been born perfect and your shit wouldn’t stink. But you weren’t and it does.
In the original photo below, taken in New York’s Central Park, the sunlight was gracing the tops of the trees, with everything below the rider’s level blanketed in deep shade except for sporadic gaps between trees. This isn’t how it looked to my eyes, but it’s how the camera dealt with the light and shadows. The riders were shadowed in this and other shots. I had 4 photography choices at the time: A) I could expose for the passengers and risk blowing out the driver; B) I could use an off-camera flash and piss off the passengers and driver plus ensure I never got a second shot; C) I could hire an assistant to hold up a reflector and try to bounce light in precisely the right spots on a moving carriage, or D) I could expose for the driver and fix the rest in post. I suppose I could have also prayed for two more suns so that my image looked like a Canaletto painting, but I didn’t know the right magic words, and so I went with choice “D.”
In editing, I could have done it the old way and dodged the people’s faces, which would have worked fine. I used a variant called “reflector efx” in Nik tools, which allowed me to add fill light on the passenger’s faces in precisely the same hue as the existing, limited light. Boom. Five minutes, done. I’m happy with the image, and now you can see the girl’s pretty face as well as her dad’s protective stare. Sure, it’s a subtle difference, but it’s the difference between two anonymous riders and a lovely girl with a father who’s reacting precisely like all dads when they see a stranger with a camera. Seeing their faces changes the shot into a study in human nature, in protectiveness and inquisitiveness. More importantly, it is what I was trying to accomplish when I took the shot. I didn’t settle for close enough, because it was a Fuji, not a hand grenade.
Editing is the juice we artists are made of, and I promise you, the voice inside that says, “I don’t wanna,” or “It’s boring,” is that still, soft voice that secretly believes you aren’t good enough or that you couldn’t turn your thing into SOMETHING even if you tried. But you can, or you’d not still be here, reading this, after I purposely tried to piss you off a few paragraphs earlier. You can do this. You can learn how to make your best work look better than the best work of the pros you’ve seen or those you’ve held in too-high esteem without realizing they simply knew how to edit better than you do.
So, if you’re still with me here, jump on the train and strap in, because we’re going teach you some magic in future articles.
Editor’s notes: *Festuche is not a real word. Unless you are an ex-IBMer, you are not authorized in its use; however, for the sake of understandability it means, in effect, a big pile of shit.
** Photo of people in Central Park © Bill Jones, Jr. Other photos © Steve McCurry/Magnum and National Geographic.