Punished for the aesthetics

As I sit down at my computer ready to retouch some scanned film in Photoshop, I should perhaps bear in mind the debate over post processing files to the point of deception. You know the type, super airbrushed overly processed stuff; the nonsense that passes for photography on the covers of many magazines and in advertising. If you erased a wrinkle, trimmed the flab and swapped heads you are an illustrator.

This debate has once again kicked off in regard to photojournalism and Danish photographer Klavs Bo Christenson is the victim. He was excluded from the judging for this year's Press Photo Awards by The Danish Press Photography Union for the use of photoshop in his submitted images.

They asked him for his raw files in order to compare the 'original' to the final image. I understand why they did this but I have to admit I think this is a little unfair. Any photographer will tell you that the 'original' - raw file or negative - often requires a bit of work in the darkroom or on the computer in order to bring out the best in the image. As a way of checking to see if anything has been added or removed, or changed beyond recognition then I think this is fine, but when comparing a raw with a retouched file it is possible for there to be a huge discrepency without it being 'unacceptable'.

However, it's all a bit vague to be honest and a lot of it is down to personal taste. It's a bit tough to be objective about the use of post processing tools.

In Klavs Bo Christenson's defense, I would say that he is not trying to alter the content or spirit of the photograph, but instead is the victim of just plain bad photoshopping. The high contrast and vivid colours in particular make them look like they were digitally altered and as a consequence we are discussing the technique and not the content. In this instance, the aesthetic masks the content and that is where they fall down. You look at these pictures and think 'photoshop' before you think anything else.

The strange thing is that looking at his website, there is plenty of work that is not excessively or poorly retouched, so he or his retoucher seem to have done something very different for this series of image.

That Christenson's photos have been removed from competition is a shame, and the bad publicity he will probably get from this is not a good thing, but it is perhaps a lesson we all should learn from. We have some great tools for bringing out the best in our photos and making them look amazing. The aim of this should be to direct our attention to the content, not to detract from it. Let's not spoil a good photo by using photoshop excessively or without skill and care.

A retouched version. Photo: Klavs Bo Christensen.

The original RAW file converted to JPEG using the Default setting in Adobe Camera Raw. Photo: Klavs Bo Christensen.

1 comment:

David Campbell said...

This case raises a lot of very interesting questions about how documentary/reportage images are judged these days (I've written on this at http://www.david-campbell.org/2009/04/17/photographic-truth-and-photoshop/). While the Danish competition balked at this photographers over-saturation of colour, its rules state it has no problem, in the name of a truthful representation, with photographers completely de-saturating their images (turning them into black and white).