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February 21, 2013

From Gaza to Kansas City: Yes Photos, But So Much More!

Kansas City fire

While the battle rages over the World Press-winning photo and how processed it looks (I’m tending to agree with the kid from Yale), I’m appreciative that one of the PhotoShelter commenters happened to point out the photos this week from the Kansas City fire. Yes, most of the edit looks like it was staged on the Universal backlot, like it was visually inspired by” Backdraft.”

And, if you want to make sure you’ll be permanently prevented from mistaking the KC disaster photos with real life, check out this link (via Mr. Murabayashi) from the blog, Into the Abyss, on THE COLOR GRADING VIRUS THAT IS TEAL & ORANGE!!! (… Funny, it seems the same thing was tripping me up back in 2005.)

I understand how passionate photographers can become over processing and representation issues and the extent to which the presentation of a photograph is more objective or subjective. For our purposes though, as in our speculation over Nachtwey’s tweaks to his 9/11 photos, our concern (not discussed nearly or thoroughly enough, we believe) is both the motive for and, respectively, the aesthetic, editorial, political and historical effects of the result.

World Press winner 2 versions Paul Hansen

In the case of Mr. Hansen’s WPP winning photo, for example — here juxtaposed with the previously published version most are comparing it to — I’m interested in why the viewer is so much more compelled by a photo that has been toned and color-corrected to look like an illustration or the frame from a video game. Further, what I’m curious about is how much the look is the manifestation of fashion or style trend as compared to, say, a moral/representational assist to accentuate the particular, stimulating us to bring fresh eyes to still another round of Gaza horror.

Which brings me back to the images of the fire, the tweaking of which is back-slappingly telegraphed by the KC Star headline: “Blaze at JJ’s near Plaza caught in striking images.” In this case, the final result is not an iota as debate-worthy as Mr. Hansen’s imagery, either in its intriguing light and color, or, certainly, its dramatic composition. Rather, what we’re expected to be seduced by — encouraged by editors and publishers in an epic chase for eyeballs — is a dusky luminescent pink, lime and orange disaster treat as one of the injured guys does yoga.

The Kansas City slideshow here.

(photo: Bob Greenspan/Special to The Star caption: A dazed victim barely stands as first responders arrive on the scene of an explosion and 4-alarm fire at JJ’s restaurant on The Country Club Plaza on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.)

  • black_dog_barking

    A photo is a 2d representation of the 3d world captured by our (normally) bi-optic image processing circuitry. So if avoidance of distortion is a goal (especially for news photography) then we’ve lost before really getting started. Even camera obscura is a distortion of nature’s light. Certainly bouncing light through lenses and mirrors before capturing it on digital or chemical sensors is artifice as well. I don’t think we can do much better than insisting on full disclosure of the processing behind the scenes.

    The images from Curiosity that are white-balanced to make it appear as if Mars landscape was bathed in sunlight filtered through Earth’s atmosphere are stunning. But we do a dis-service if we don’t plainly state this manipulation when we offer these images in a news report. IMHO.

    BTW: thanks for the Orange and Teal link. Yet another visual tic from the movies like streets at night being wet and car lights always left on.

  • bystander

    For me, the appeal of Hansen’s “adjusted” (?) image over the “brighter” (?) image to which it is being compared, is how much better it reflects my emotional interiority with respect to the situation in Gaza. That is, there can be nothing bright or hopeful about the situation for the Palestinians in Gaza. The circumstance is historically “cemented” in the gray-browns of concrete-like colors. Nothing can change. The dynamics, such as they are, are actually frozen in a repetitive loop that is both predictable and utterly depressing. There is a ghost-like quality to this image… an event that really happened… but died from a kind of global neglect… and the ghost tableau can only haunt the space it had occupied. And, Hansen’s is the image of that haunting.

  • Cactus

    As always, I’m the outlier here. But then I’m not a
    photojournalist, either. And I have cataracts. The ‘original’ (second) photo
    looks to be the manipulated one. The faces seem almost too bright. The sun is
    obviously coming from behind them which means, to be believed, there must be
    some powerful reflection ahead of them. The colors are almost too bright for
    such a somber scene. Does the toning down make the men look less ethnic? Does
    it make them look more or less angry? More or less mournful? All of which may
    get to why it was done in the first place. Or did the photographer skew the
    image in camera by exposure or such — I’m not a digital expert by any

    Don’t know what to think of the KC fire shots. They
    are striking and beautiful. I do know that fluorescent lights and vapor lights
    can skew colors but some of these are quite dramatic.

    Is there a law against photo-editorializing? For
    instance, is there a difference between submitting a photo to prove that
    something actually happened, i.e., a fire in KC, and submitting a photo as part
    of a ‘think piece’ on the problems in general of the Gaza

  • robert e

    What’s interesting to me is that the KC slideshow and Hansen’s prizewinning image are being criticized for the same problem–inappropriate color. However, in the case of the former, the colors, while perhaps being slightly oversaturated in one or two frames (including the frame shown here), look accurate for the time of day and situation. The latter is being criticized for having been desaturated after the fact.

    Well, which do we want?

    Contrary to the Into the Abyss blog post, orange and teal is a naturally occurring, if uncommon, tonal combination, and it’s the reason photographers go out of their way to shoot in “golden hour”. Not all golden hours are equal. When the conditions are just right, the orange light of the setting sun and western sky illuminates objects while the blue light of the eastern sky fills the shadows.

    For a brief time, in the right weather, these hues of light can be perfectly balanced and quite soft. This is especially dramatic on the eastern seaboard of the US (and I’d assume the eastern shore of most places, as the cool water reflects and enhances the bluer light from the east). It also happens that the subdued natural light in these conditions will not overwhelm typical street and signage lighting and the colors they introduce into a scene. It also happens that a burning building glows predominantly orange.

    Unfortunately, all of this was happening during the KC fire. Unfortunate because the unusual light conditions illuminate the scene in an unusually pleasing way, rendering the world as a pastel bonbon. A wedding or event photographer or a cinematographer would give an arm for such light. Nothing could be less appropriate for a disaster. The images also appear too bright, which also exaggerates the artificial look.

    Sometimes nature just gives us the wrong light.

    The documentary photography and photojournalism traditions were defined when news photos were reproduced in coarse, high contrast halftone screens. I think these duelling kerfluffles illustrate how that legacy still colors (pardon the pun) our judgement of news photos, and of “reality”.

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