Is retouching acceptable?
There’s been a controversy surrounding Steve McCurry, a photographer I have listened to on the edge of a conversation a couple of times courtesy of Kodak who were always great sponsors and put his ‘Afghan Girl’ on display at photokina 2012 where McCurry’s work was celebrated.
Here’s the story – he’s been changing, or allowing his retouchers and agents to change, the material content of some shots. This has included the removal of people, changes to their clothing, tidying up messy objects and distractions. First, this is not something new and great photojournalists never saw harm in burning in or dodging back areas of a print to make something disappear into a shadow or burn out to white. It was OK to use bleach on prints if needed to remove blemishes, including things which damaged the shot. It was even OK to use tints or pencil to enhance outlines so that newspaper reproduction didn’t lose the subject in a grey mush.
That’s the current controversy.
Well, here are some examples from my archives. One dates from 1969 and back when the first prints were made from this, with publication in The Guardian and various magazines, I used pencil and bleach to try to ensure the faces at the centre of the group were properly defined from the wall behind them. This was a very mild treatment and not very successful.
Here’s a not-totally straight print. Some detailed dodging and burning was done in the darkroom to try to get the definition needed between the blonde girl’s face and the wall. It was this lack of definition which meant it was never a real winner, though it did well enough in competitions. It was also taken on outdated Perutz film using a very cheap manual Hanimex lens – I was only 17 and could not afford anything more!
Once scanned, the print could be retouched digitally, Photoshop giving much more accurate control of burning-in the tone of the wall behind the girls. This is the result – it’s not a huge change. and I do not think anyone would suggest it falsifies the image.
Moving on, here’s another group of children – three kids in the timed-burst water play fountain at Alnwick Castle Garden. It’s a picture I was very pleased to catch, the best of three frames with the children at the best critical moment for action and composition. But in the darkroom I would certainly have burned in the people in the background to reduce their distracting highlights.
One of the principles of making a picture which works is to reduce it to a simple form. Extra faces always distract (we are drawn to look at faces regardless of composition). So, for this image, I retouched our the entire background scene. This would not be allowed by many competition, awards and some news or general media.
Since I offer both images as licensable stock, with the retouched version clearly identified as retouched, I don’t feel there is any wrongdoing here.
The next example is less controversial because it has no people at all. Wires interfere with the view of Hollows Tower, the old stronghold of the reiver Johnny Armstrong in the debateable lands as you pass from Scotland into England.
It’s not a massive task to remove the pole and wire mess. It falsifies the state of the scene, but only from a viewpoint which is not typical – most tourists see the tower as they drive past, from many angles.
I have not removed all the poles!
Finally, another example of where the infrastructure spoils the scene. In Holetown, Barbados, local ladies tend to dress up well to do the shopping and tend to stop to chat in the street. Even so, it’s a matter of framing and shooting quickly to catch a neat moment before they move on or something else gets in the way. And the wiring on the wall really does spoil the shot.
The retouching here was more complex. Is it a crime, or a routine part of modern photography?
My work is generally used by travel guides, or in articles and books relating to people and places, travel and everyday life. The meter on the wall clearly documents the real place. The retouched image is an imaginary place. However it’s not been removed because it was an ugly meter. It’s removed because it spoiled a shot which I liked.
You can make your own judgments on Steve McCurry or his retouchers. Did they alter the pictures because they were really spoiled by the way they were? I feel I would have been happy with the unretouched image in most cases or used less obvious major changes.
– David Kilpatrick