Thinking Images v.26: From Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to Google Images

Given the difficulty of talking about photography, it is possible an image can convey insights about this complex field. Although it is now seven years old, and many will have seen it, Joan Fontcuberta’s Googlegram: Niépce (2005) is perhaps one such image. I’m not often taken by photographic art but seeing Googlegram: Niépce (2005) this week struck a chord.

Fontcuberta’s artwork is based on the first known photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826). Currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of the After Photoshop exhibition, the construction of Googlegram: Niépce (2005) is described in these terms:

Fontcuberta created this work by processing the results of a Google Image search for the words “photo” and “foto” through photomosaic software, which generates a tiled picture from a large group of thumbnail images arranged according to chromatic value and density. The result is a composite of ten thousand tiny electronic images that links the photography’s chemical origins to its dematerialized, pixelated present.

It is hard to convey the mosaic, almost impressionistic style, of Fontcuberta’s artwork in a screen grab, but this detailed view gives a sense of the thumbnails that are shaded and shaped to replicate Niépce’s 1826 image.

The link from past to present is neither clear nor linear (and the present is not purely virtual as suggested in the above description), but in representing both the historic and contemporary layers of photography in one image, materialising the popularisation and proliferation of images, Fontcuberta has pictured something important about the complexities of photography.

There remains much anxiety in traditional circles about the impact of vernacular digital imagery and its circulation, not least in the periodic outbursts against apps like Hipstamatic and social media channels like Instagram. Reflecting on the logic of Fontcuberta’s artwork might be one way to rethink the idea that the image present – for all that it involves heightened scale and speed – is just a departure from or corruption of the photographic past.

Image credits: Googlegram: Niépce (2005), copyright Joan Fontcuberta, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection; Googlegram 200 detail, from the National Museum of Wales web site.


Photographic manipulation: the new World Press Photo rule

World Press Photo has included a new clause about the manipulation of imagery in their entry rules for 2010. This clause says:

The content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards and may at its discretion request the original, unretouched file as recorded by the camera or an untoned scan of the negative or slide.

For WPP, this clause is clear:

In essence, this means that the content of an image must not be tampered with. The new clause is flexible enough to allow the jury some room for interpretation, because enhancement may be defined differently, for example, for a portrait than for a hard news picture.

This new clause is most likely a reaction to the controversy sparked by the exclusion of Klavs Bo Christensen’s Haiti photos from the Danish picture of the year competition – a controversy I discussed here in April. (Note that some of the links in that post no longer find details of the Christensen debate – it seems that what was being openly discussed earlier in the year is now being closed down. A summary and two of the offending images can still be seen here however).

As Photo District News observed, this clause begs more questions than it answers. What are the “currently accepted standards in the industry”? The recurrent controversies suggest they don’t actually exist. And the flexibility accorded to the jury in permitting interpretation for different domains of photographic practice demonstrates that even if standards can be cited, they are far from universal or fixed.

Nonetheless, the WPP clause is significant because it shows that the grounds for judging the legitimacy of documentary photographs come, not from external or objective standards linked to notions of realism, but from accepted practice within the genre of photojournalism and its history. In this conventional wisdom black and white photographs have long been the gold standard, but isn’t desaturating a picture a form of tampering? And if that is permitted, what is not allowed?

The clause also demonstrates that WPP clings to the desire to regard either the negative or RAW file as the foundation of photographic truth, the point of origin against which everything else can be judged. Given the operation of photographic technology both past and present that seems to be a misplaced faith.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in next years competition. For the WPP clause to be effective, the organization is going to have to be transparent about its operation and the jury’s deliberations should a problem arise.


Photographic retouching exposed

The issues surrounding photographic meaning, manipulation and Photoshop have been prominent recently (see my previous posts here and here, with some updates amongst the comments for each).

Via Fred Ritchin’s After Photography (see his 24 April post) comes news of a Swedish government project Girlpower dealing with sexism in advertising.

One element is a magazine cover where, step-by-step, you can un-do the manipulation of the model to see how the glamorous cover was produced. You can go through each of the twelve changes that have been made, and at the end click on a red button to see the complete before and after images.

We know it happens, but in this case, seeing is really believing.


Photographic truth and Photoshop

Photography’s anxiety about truth, manipulation and reality has been on show recently. In different ways and from different contexts, people have been asking: “how much Photoshop is too much”?

From the realm of fashion, French Elle is being celebrated for running a cover story in which the models photographs have not been ‘Photoshopped’ (thereby confirming, as I’ve noted previously, that digital manipulation is the norm in this visual domain).

From the world of photojournalism, blogs like 1854, PDNPulse and the Online Photographer (with a follow-up here) have been buzzing with the story of the Danish photographer Klavs Bo Christensen who was excluded from that country’s Picture of the Year competition for excessive colour manipulation of his Haiti story.  Along with two others, Christensen was asked to submit his RAW files to the competition judges who felt that the colour in his photographs had been excessively saturated, and removed his images from the competition as a result. Christensen was subsequently happy to have his files put on the web for comparison and discussion, thereby performing an important service to the photographic community.

My interest in the case is less in the rights and wrongs of Christensen’s images and more in how we talk about the rights and wrongs of these images. For those who feel the judges were right and Christenson was wrong, the case is relatively simply. Both the judges and the bloggers are in broad agreement. Photography is understood in terms of either art or documentary/photojournalism/reportage, with the latter supposed to be free of manipulation that gets in the way of seeing the world as it really is. You can make changes to digital images that replicate what would have once been with film and paper in the darkroom, but no more. It all seems straightforward with nice clear lines that should not be crossed.

If only. Framing the debate in these terms relies on a conventional understanding of the history of photography that cannot be sustained. The line between ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ has been blurred ever since John Grierson, who coined the term documentary in the 1920s, argued that its purpose was to generate a particular “pattern of thought and feeling” in the viewer. This sense, replicated in all the statements by well-known photojournalists that their function is to bear witness and record the otherwise ignored injustices of modern life, means there is always a particular perspective at the heart of documentary and reportage no matter how often people want to defend it in terms of simple realism.

There are also some more mundane reasons why the lines of judgment are not so clear-cut. As much as those who take issue with Christensen think that the RAW files are “pretty eloquent all by themselves,” are these files really like film negatives? Can anyone actually see a RAW digital file without any post-processing? (Could we actually see a negative without post-processing?).

All this suggests we are talking about the degree of alteration and post-processing that is deemed acceptable rather than either the absence or presence of manipulation. This is confirmed by reading some of the comments in favour of the judges. Mike Johnston summarized the view rather well:

And of course there’s nothing wrong with Photoshop (or any other image editor), or with darkroom manipulation. But in photojournalism those tools are expected to be used to increase the accuracy and veracity of the photograph to the scene—not decrease it. That seems to be Mr. Christensen’s failure here, not the tools he used. He’s simply made himself a suspect witness by overdoing his manipulations to the point of obvious unreality, subverting realism for cheap effects instead of reporting it with an appropriate modicum of dispassion.

This argument repeats the familiar terms justifying conventional photojournalism – veracity, witness, realism, dispassion. However, given these terms, allowing for some legitimate manipulation, the idea that one can increase accuracy and veracity – as opposed to simply record it without interference – undercuts the logic of the starting point.

Similarly, the Danish competition judges accept editing in Photoshop, thought some of Christensen’s images were satisfactory, but deemed most of them “too extreme.” So the issue is not whether you can manipulate or not, but how far one can go. The rules of the competition seek to make these limits clear:

Photos submitted to Picture of The Year must be a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure. You may post-process the images electronically in accordance with good practice. That is cropping, burning, dodging, converting to black and white as well as normal exposure and color correction, which preserves the image’s original expression. The Judges and exhibition committee reserve the right to see the original raw image files, raw tape, negatives and/or slides. In cases of doubt, the photographer can be pulled out of competition.

So, although you have to have “a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure,” even if you exposed the multi-coloured world in colour you can convert it to black and white. While Christensen was criticized for over-saturating his colours, he would have been in the clear had he simply, and completely, de-saturated them. The excessive addition of colour is a problem, but the total subtraction of colour is permitted. Is that clear?

Again, my interest is not in the rights and wrongs of the case, but, rather, the terms of the debate about what is right and wrong. We most definitely need photographs (including black and white pictures) we can use as documents, but we cannot justify documentary status through conventional understandings based on a mythical understanding of photography’s history and a supposedly secure analogue past. Photojournalism, as I’ve written elsewhere, has to learn to live with tensions and contradictions as it searches for a better foundation in our digital world.


Photographic truth and manipulation

We know photographs can be false yet we want them to be true. Indeed, the desire for photographic veracity has persisted, perhaps even intensified, even as knowledge about image manipulation becomes more widespread.

Reflecting on the Oscar ceremonies, MediaGuardian has documented the widespread use of Photoshop to enhance celebrity photographs in fashion and gossip magazines. Every cover, says one media insider, has been altered to some degree, with some of these changes exposed in the “Photoshop Hall of Shame” and “Photoshop Disasters”. So common is the practice that when an October 2008 Newsweek cover of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was not airbrushed, conservative anchors on Fox television complained that this amounted to liberal bias. (Fox knew about the political power of such changes because it had earlier manipulated the photos of two New York Times journalists it wanted to discredit).

Despite being widespread, digital manipulation provokes anxiety and unease, especially when news photographs are involved. The scandals surrounding Brian Walski’s 2003 photos from Iraq and Adnan Hajj’s 2006 pictures from Lebanon led to both men being fired from their jobs, and the governments of Iran and the US have been criticized when they released altered military images of missiles and a general.

What is commonplace in one visual domain (fashion) is regarded as taboo in another (news). Yet both realms are still regulated by a desire for photographs to be accurate and authentic documents. The persistence and power of this desire despite the long history of photographic manipulation (chemical and digital) is something that needs explanation.