The Afghan Girl and what does photoshop – and the Impressionists – have to do with it?

national-geographic-100-best-pictures-coverYou already know this photo – it is the legendary portrait titled “Afghan Girl” that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and then went on to become one of the most iconic pictures of all times. No wonder: the resolute gaze of the girl, in such dire circumstances, the unusual color of her eyes are indeed striking. What is also impactful but less  consciously recognizable is the color contrast of the saturated green and red that appeal subconsciously. And if you are a photography enthusiast, you also know the name of the photographer, Steve McCurry, popularly famous for shooting the last roll of Kodachrome ever produced, too. He was given that honor by Kodak because that film, noted for its exceptional saturated colors, was his signature film.  And you perhaps know that his signature style was striking human figures (most often shot in third-world countries) in traditional environments in saturated colors.

Steve McCurry has achieved the level of popularity of such stars as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastiao Salgado who are known as the quintessential photographers for a general public that is not necessarily interested in photography or art. Just like the Impressionists in oil painting. And like the Impressionists, they are the obvious choice for museums and curators who want to attract the general public to visit. McCurry is especially popular in Italy and several exhibitions of his work are currently on view there. They are organized in a lavish display with no expense spared and are getting a constant flow of visitors.

And just as in the case of Impressionists, those same curators and museums are being accused of appeasing  the popular taste, that they go for the easiest and lowest common denominator, that “enough is enough”.

Not that McCurry and Salgado are not good, they say, but their exhibitions are overdone, come at the expense of exhibiting other things, of developing that popular taste, of showing diverse points of seeing the world. Also, McCurry himself is badmouthed for other reasons on top of that: not just that his photography is everywhere and is overexposed, but that his point of view is traditionalist, colonialist, and “all-too-perfect”. For example, that he promotes a nostalgic old-timer picture of India in which any mention of modernity or anything that complicates the traditionalist simplistic notion most people have of India is eliminated: just old wrinkled faces in turbans, women in colorful saris on the background of peeling old walls – cliches that you sure know all too well. And his use of saturated colors is also blamed for this simplicity and easy appeal.

But – in the middle of this popularity – a scandal that befits, logically, a celebrity. One of those visitors, a photographer himself, has gotten closer to one of his enlarged prints to examine the colors and has noticed a badly mangled photoshop job. Now, McCurry is often blamed for photoshopping in his overly saturated colors, but hey, this has been his style since forever. Saturation, although not “natural”, although too facile for appealing to the eye, has nothing to do with photoshop but is the effect of certain films that yes, now can also be replicated with digital means.

But the faux pas is not about saturation. It’s about retouching. A bad, extremely sloppy job of retouching. Here’s the offending photo below: in the most significant problem, you can clearly see how the man under the arch and next to the yellow pole has a little leftover yellow pole piece sticking out of his foot. It is clear that the yellow pole was originally right behind him, but Steve McCurry decided to separate them and cloned out the figure away from the pole.






Well, not exactly Steve McCurry. After the discovery was posted on the visitor’s personal blog a storm ensued, curators chimed in and McCurry himself responded that it was “a young collaborator” (read: low-paid, if at all, intern) who had done the bad job and was then swiftly fired. Defenders insisted that the indignant audience doesn’t understand photoshop or how photography works, that this is not war photography in which every single pixel counts in its original place, that this is art, etc. Nevertheless, the newspaper La Stampa published a survey in which a majority of readers deemed the offending photo worthy of removal from the exhibition.

Is Steve McCurry dethroned with all this? Are curators right to lament, in their turn, the photographic ignorance of the public? Absolutely not. They have chosen to show an exhibition of McCurry and not anyone else exactly because it appeals to a broad audience and satisfies its expectations. If they wanted to educate an audience and develop a more nuanced view of photography they would have chosen another exhibition and another photographer. Now they have to accept the consequences without blaming an undeserved reaction.

But this is a great occasion to reflect why this small, if poorly done, modification of the original photo has turned out to be so important and offending for the public. Is it so ignorant really? Naive in its fascination with an outdated concept of the photographic image? I for one don’t underestimate the public and don’t blame ignorance. I believe that this is a very logical and just reaction that befits McCurry’s cultivation of his style.

It is true that this is not a war photograph and that it is a minor retouching, of the type that every photographer does, especially commercial portrait photographers employed by this very same general public when they go for their headhots and family photos.   But why did McCurry really do it, if he says it’s insignificant? Clearly to make it more visually appealing, more striking – in a way that most lay people don’t recognize why it is more striking.

One of the reasons McCurry has become so popular is because he presents a quotidian, mundane scene that looks so fascinating that most people marvel how they had not recognized in their everyday life. The “colpo d’occhio” – the strike of the eye that catches a glimpse of magic and conveys it through the camera becomes transcendental. The photographer has seen some magical alignment of reality in a glimpse that other people wouldn’t notice and shares it with us. This is the grand appeal of photography as opposed to painting, for example. Yes, it is absolutely realistic, plausible and even certain in this case that the man under the arch was indeed at some point in a position that was not overlapping with the yellow pole and so more visually interesting.

But the photographer, as a seer, didn’t see it in that specific moment. He tried to make it better after the fact, but that subtracts a big part of the magic that photography is: the strike of an eye that sees a revealing, almost transcendental moment as it happens and offers it to us. The magical moment and its recognition is what counts the most.  Photoshopping subtracts a big part of the (unconscious) rationale of McCurry’s appeal. If he really didn’t find the photo great the most honest approach for someone in his position would be to simply not include it in the exhibition.

And let me emphasize that not all photography works like that. There are those who openly and obviously (for everyone – including the public) manipulate the capture and that’s the point and appeal of their work. Think Maggie Taylor. There are others who stage their captures instead of “finding them in the wild”. I fall in these two categories and recognize that the appeal of my work is not a role of “seer and revelator”. But McCurry has made a different case for himself, also considering that he has worked for National Geographic for so long.

But there is another, more significant implication. By embellishing an everyday life in Cuba as presented in his photos, McCurry falls in the usual, all too frequent representation of Cuba that has befallen American audiences in the last few years. Ever since visiting restrictions were relaxed recently, we have seen a barrage of photos that – unfortunately – follow the same overdrive cliche of Cuba, supported, partially, by saturated colors literally and figuratively. Because of that, sadly, his photographs don’t reveal anything new or different about such a oversubscribed yet ultimately, really, unknown place.

And finally, yes: if his exhibitions have become so lavish operations and he has become such a celebrity, he also has to comply with higher craft standards for his work. You can’t ask for an expensive entry ticket to see your exhibition and also not care for the quality of retouching you have outsourced to an intern to the point of not checking on it.


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