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September 10, 2012

James Nachtwey’s 9/11: Eleven Years Later, Like Night and Day

Nachtwey 9 11 church Revised

9/11 in 2011

Nachtwey 9 11 church original

9/11 in 2001

Unfortunately, the Bush administration used the emotional power of the images of 9/11, including mine, to justify and gather support for an ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, a country that had absolutely no connection to the attack on 9/11. So things get manipulated in all kinds of ways.

– James Nachtwey from “Revisiting 9/11: Unpublished Photos by James Nachtwey” 9/7/2011 (TIME)

A couple months ago, a friend sent me a link to a Google+ post by photographer Max Hodges. Published last September 12th, it raised professional and moral questions surrounding an edit of classic 9/11 photos by James Nachtwey published at TIME the day before. These “unpublished” photos (at least two of which seem identical to a pair in this post-cataclysm TIME slideshow) were essentially re-edited versions of photos circulated ten years before.

If I had to boil down Hodges’ post and the accompanying slideshow, the gist was that altering your original photos to this degree would be an out-and-out breach of ethics in a news/reporting context, but for more personal and interpretive purposes, it’s debatable (especially that much later), the role of art coming prominently into play.

Nachtwey kneeling fireman 9 11 revised

9/11 in 2011

Nachtwey 9 11 Fireman Kneeling Original

9/11 in 2001

Two comments from the Hodges post were particularly interesting, one more technical involving the inherent subjectivity of any photo. Will Bueche comments:

“Excessive lightening/darkening” may apply here — but which set is wrong? The set from the day, which has blown-out whites in many of the images from being printed too light, or the recent set, which recovers much more detail but might be a bit darker than people’s real-life impression (arguably) may have been? Should we rely on the photographer’s memory of the scenes he photographed? I’d argue yes, we probably should — but we should also know the circumstances of the original images. When he was shooting thousands of pictures on the day of the disaster, how was he transmitting the data as he ran around? Did he have any time to review the images that editors were selecting and have the opportunity to say “hey, those are too bright – the scenes in real life were darker, knock them down a bit”? Without more info there is no way to assume that the original images are more authentic than the ones that have been recently printed with evident care.

Alfie Goodrich, on the other hand, emphasized how creative reality is in the first place (more confounded, it seems, by time and memory):

Ten years after the event, maybe Stockhausen was right when he said: “Well, what happened there is, of course—now all of you must adjust your brains—the biggest work of art there has ever been.”

Nachtwey broken window 9 11 revised

9/11 in 2011

Nachtwey broken window 9 11 Original

9/11 in 2001

This 9/11 anniversary reminds me how, after going to my tenth college reunion, it was never that special anymore. I have to admit, after the hail storm of imagery we saw last September pounding for weeks leading up to the the tenth anniversary, this week (especially with Obama and Romney “looking forward, not back”) has been a little odd.

Nachtwey dust people 9 11 revised

9/11 in 2011

Nachtwey 9 11 People walking thru dust Original

9/11 in 2001

So later today, I’m honored to be joining a graduate seminar at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy to do a deep dive into the optics of 9/11. It’s with that class in mind I put some thought to these pairs of Nachtwey images. Because Bag is about reading images, I’m interested in what you and the students have to say about each pair in particular, and any larger pattern to what Nachtwey’s done. In general, though, I can appreciate Nachtwey’s embellishments as a form of mimicry of the profound mental operations you and I have all performed on these images in our heads.

I get that Old Glory would enter the first picture to engage in a dialogue with the cross (“flag-flation” being a hallmark of the “war on terror” and what many saw as a war on Islam). It makes sense to me also the picture got darker (even if the original was too light in the first place);  and that the debris would have to be more thoroughly parsed.

I can understand that the fire behind the fireman on his knees would grow more intense over time.

It’s not a surprise to me that the scene through the shattered window would not remain monochromatic, the rose colored plumage lending desperately needed affect allowing our memories to understand the unfathomable scene as one straight out of the underworld.

Regarding the last set, that’s a real flight, isn’t it? I could certainly use your help on this one.  Is it possible that actually surviving that day didn’t necessarily save America from becoming a shadow of its former self?

(photos: James Nachtwey, 2001 and 2011)

  • Cousin

    Does anyone know who the fireman on his knees is? (no helmet) I think it is my cousin who perished right after this photo was taken.

    • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com Michael Shaw

      Have you tried contacting Nachtwey through the VII agency?

  • black_dog_barking

    Many of the color images from Curiosity on Mars are white balanced to produce a landscape as it would appear under Earth’s atmospheric conditions. The unfamiliar gets a familiar cast.

    It seems the more we learn about our place in this universe the less objective “objective” becomes. Like a camera we have fixed sensor elements and like modern cameras we have software capable of adjusting the information received from these sensors.

  • Stan B.

    The ease and power of photo editing software has grown exponentially since 2001, when most professional photographers, like Nachtwey, were still using film. It’s no wonder editors applied some of those skills to pump “new life” into these oft seen images. Although hard to draw any “definitive” conclusion from such small online jpegs, I generally tend to favor the more recent “interpretations,” except for the last image which has been completely stripped of its very subtle and nuanced color palette, reducing it into ghostlike silhouette.

    • http://twitter.com/max_hodges Max Hodges

      >like Nachtwey, were still using film
      Nacthwey stopped using film years ago.

  • LanceThruster

    Like day into eternal darkness. The greatest tragedy is a complicit media. The same crew that can’t even bring itself to point out outright candidate lies wants us to believe that it can ferret out the truth re: 9/11.

    It hurts me to no end to discuss 9/11 mythology at the very time the myths are being endlessly regurgitated.

  • http://profiles.google.com/fatunga robert e

    1. The times claims that only 7 of the 17 frames were not published previously. One of them is in the first set here, paired with a different frame of the same scene.

    2. All photographs are interpretations, first by the camera, exposure settings, and capture medium, then by the printer/editor/publisher.

    3. A case can be made for the inaccuracy of the originally published set: Witnesses spoke of the eeriness and unnaturalness of the light. Indeed, the combination of sunlight dimmed and filtered through thick dust and smoke from disintegrating and burning buildings and rubble likely resulted in color casts not normally encountered by people or cameras, or editors. I don’t know what film Nachtwey used, and that would have had an effect as well, but editors may also have made adjustments to bring out the most detail and “correct” the color balance for publication, further distorting the representations published immediately after the event. I’m inclined to trust that process less than Nachtwey’s recollections as a seasoned photographer who was on the scene, even ten years later. With the exception of the first scene shown here, most of the originally published images seem to me to be too bright and too “natural” given the described conditions.
    3. I’m skeptical of the skepticism of any critic who was not at the scene and did not personally experience the light levels and colors at the time these photos were taken.
    4. Even if I’m wrong, accusations of misrepresentation are overblown since the original interpretations are on the record, and no claims have been made as to the technical accuracy of the recent edit, as far as I know.

    • http://maxhodges.com Max Hodges

      The zombie apocalypse photos are the exact same frame, but slightly different crop. You can stack them up in Photoshop to see. So clearly the subjects where darken in the rev2 image, strong evidence that the details were crushed to intentionally create an very different and “unnatural” representation of the scene that day. Just saying.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=699726629 Dave McLane

    It seems to me that once you get past the fiction that photographs don’t lie, you realize that the final result involves what the photographer saw/felt as what we see is mediated by what we feel at the time. Plus this can change again at a later time depending of what the photographer, writer, and/or editor see/feels is appropriate considering how/where it’s going to be shown to others.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Weldon-Berger/1075193081 Weldon Berger

    The last pairing and the one shot through the window both strike me as manipulative. I have a color deficiency that may be making the saturation in the updated window shot more distracting than it is for other people, but it seems to me to have changed the emphasis pretty dramatically from documentary to emotional (not that the first isn’t emotional, but do you know what I mean?). The updated version of the last photo bears so little resemblance to the original that it may as well be a painter’s rendition. I find the original to be far more powerful.

    I probably would have done something similar with the first shot to bring out more detail. The firemen shot seems like a feasible judgement call.

    “Is it possible that actually surviving that day didn’t necessarily save America from becoming a shadow of its former self?”

    There was never a possibility that the country wouldn’t physically survive the day. America has always been an interpretation. In that sense, Stockhausen was right; you can think of the attacks as having brought out details in the American portrait that weren’t previously apparent. I would argue that rather than having been diminished, the country, or rather the people, simply became more overtly what we are.

  • Cactus

    First, I should say that I approach the subject from an art
    photography POV. In fact, what I did WAS the manipulation of multiple image
    B&W work.

    But I fail to see why he darkened the photos published last
    year and with such a red shift. It frequently only serves to obfuscate parts of
    the ‘original’ image. Except for the last set, where it looks like the red was
    taken out but it was still darkened and detail was lost. In none of them (in my
    opinion) was the image at all improved. The only reason I can come up with is
    to evoke the dimming of memory, even of something so iconic to those who
    remember.

    The first set of images, however, are not the same photo.
    Apparently shot from the same area but maybe seconds later. The buildings are
    roughly the same angle, but there is more of the building on the right showing
    in the 2011 version. Does anyone know what medium he was using (film or
    digital)? I’m assuming digital so the shifts would be easier to do than with
    film, I think.

    Be interesting to hear what the students at USC thought. I
    read some of the comments on Max Hodges site, but after a while it was kind of
    like arguing about angels on the head of a pin. I can understand why there must
    be standards for news photos; when publications get caught they deserve to get
    into trouble.

    • http://twitter.com/max_hodges Max Hodges

      they were shot on film. in the TIME article: he shot 27 rolls of film that day – so less than 1000 photos. He hadn’t switched to digital yet.

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  • http://twitter.com/max_hodges Max Hodges

    Perhaps a bit off-topic (or maybe not), what to make of Nachtwey’s judgement to including this image of a completely unrelated physically disabled man in the context of a photo story on the Fukushima radiation disaster? It evokes images of bodies deformed and crippled by radiation and it’s entirely out of place here. Outrageous isn’t it?

    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/01/james-nachtwey-japan-slideshow#slide=8

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