Photoshop – What is Over the Line?

Recently in the news there was a story about a photojournalist, Allan Detrich who was fired for retouching his images with a digital darkroom program called Photoshop. Seems in a group photograph of a team a pair of anonymous legs, distracting and way in the in the background, were made to disappear. The picture looked better with out them and the message wasn’t distorted. But that wasn’t the point. The integrity of the paper had been compromised. The paper needed us to know their pictures were real. A reporter asked the paper’s editor what kinds of corrections were permitted in the digital darkroom. He replied that cropping (changing the framing), burning and dodging (making certain areas lighter or darker) or pretty much what you could do in the old, wet, analog lab were acceptable.
In the digital age anything is possible. Hollywood in particular has always used special effects to drive its industry and the realistic quality they now routinely pump out has unequivocally shown the lie that pictures can be made to be. For we who came of age in the analog era, I believe we had internal filters that kept media information in it’s respected categories. For people of the digital age that is gone. It is all one, big, swirling soup of visual stimulation.If newspapers want to hold manipulation to the old standards that is fine. Better to err on the side of the factual image, no matter how visually unappealing. Of course, long before the digital deluge, advertising photographs – particularly pictures of models were heavily modified. We knew and accepted this. In popular news magazines “straight” and doctored/advertisement photographs coexisted side by side. Standards used to depend on the situation. That is still the case.

Following are the standards to which photojournalists are held.
The NPPA Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics states:
“As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public.
“As photojournalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its images as a matter of historical record. It is clear that the emerging electronic technologies provide new challenges to the integrity of photographic images … in light of this, we the National Press Photographers Association, reaffirm the basis of our ethics: Accurate representation is the benchmark of our profession. We believe photojournalistic guidelines for fair and accurate reporting should be the criteria for judging what may be done electronically to a photograph. Altering the editorial content … is a breach of the ethical standards recognized by the NPPA.”

In the last couple of years I have been putting my many negatives through the Photoshop mill on their way to creating the digitized images you see on this site. Much can be said about the changes in the photographer’s workflow but the digital darkroom has revolutionized the field. One way of thinking about a negative is as a writer’s rough draft. The idea is there but it needs polishing and articulation. Or as famously stated by Ansel Adams, who trained as a classical pianist, “the negative is the score and the print is the performance”. Ansel Adams could well be considered the definitive American landscape photographer. And boy did he manipulate – in the field and in the lab. He even wrote a series of books describing how he did it.

In the early days of the medium, landscape photographers struggled mightily with restrictive processes and ridiculously heavy and bulky equipment. Despite this burden some really great photographs were produced. One of the best of the American western photographers was Carlton Watkins. He did a major series of Yosemite in the 1860s. Yosemite was dramatic fare and from the beginning attracted photographers who produced scenic views with the hope of selling prints. As is still the case, there were spots from which the view was best reveled – and this is where the standard views were made from. One favorite view was from atop the Mariposa Trail looking toward falls and half dome. At this location there was an opening and a clean view could be had. All except for one tree that’s branches partially obscured the view. What to do? The cut and paste of Photoshop was a hundred and thirty years in the future. How about climb the tree and saw off the branch? Oh yes they did! In fact photographs made at this spot can be dated by the progression of missing limbs. Good thing our Allan Detrich didn’t take his boss literally about only manipulating to pre digital standards and saw those distracting legs right off the guy in the background!







C.L. Weed, Mariposa Trail, ca. 1865






Carlton Watkins, Yosemite, Best General View, ca.1865
Photoshop has improved my work a lot. It has allowed me to make excellent photographs from imperfect or damaged negatives. It has given me controls to probe the negative for the most articulate interpretation. It has also presented the opportunity to make significant revisions. This is where the question arises – what is over the line? Where even is the line?

For me, the answer is to make the central idea of the photograph the top priority. Mostly this means adjusting the color, contrast, lightness and darkness until it feels right – same as the old days. Here is where we depart for the old days. What about a zit in a portrait? Gone. How about a road cone in an architectural view? Gone. How about a tree branch in an architectural view? Optional. How about a tree branch in a landscape? Hummm. Nope, that stays. That black hair in the sky is history though. Ok that was all pretty straight forward. It was the Concordia Yawl reunion series that really forced my hand.

You’ll recall it was 1988 and the Concordia Yawls were meeting for an unprecedented reunion at their homeport of Padanaram. I was to photograph these thoroughbreds as they formed up and romped about in Buzzards Bay. I had taken to the air in a tiny, door less chopper. I was strapped in. It was windy and noisy. The view was out of this world. The boats looked incredible as a group. All the planning, the weather, everything had fallen into place. And now I was to make the pictures others could only imagine. Then it happened. First one, than several motorboats chugged into the fleet. Against yachting protocols these lunkheaded power boaters couldn’t resist the view and drove their ugly white plastic pieces of shit into this scene of perfection! I screamed, I pleaded and screamed some more. It didn’t matter they couldn’t hear me. So I made my photographs, knowing as I did I had come so close – but missed. It was cruel and it made me nuts!

Fast-forward nineteen years. I was scanned my originals, cleaning up the dust spots, and there was a tiny powerboat the size of a piece of dust. Zap – it was gone and in it’s place only the shimmering sea. I had crossed the line of journalistic integrity. The picture looked better though – and that ugly boat shouldn’t have cluttered up the view in the first place! I was over the NAAP’s line, true. But the pure idea of the photograph is my standard, which these powerboats were hurting, not helping.

So I zapped ‘em all, large and small. It was exhilarating!


After almost twenty years the series was finally what I had intended all along.