Monday, August 24, 2009

NY TIMES DISCUSSION ON FAKED (AND MISUNDERSTOOD) PHOTOGRAPHS

The New York Times had an interesting article this weekend on "faked photographs". A slide show accompanies the article.

Two photographs featured in the gallery's current exhibition "A Thousand Words: Masters of Photojournalism" are discussed in the article, not as "fakes" but as misunderstood and altered examples.

One of the photographs singled out is Joe Rosenthal's iconic flag raining at Iwo Jima. We were especially pleased that the New York Times discussed this long-misunderstood photograph. Whenever it is displayed in the gallery we always overhear visitors speaking about their own version or interpretation of the photograph, almost always wrong.

"Questions dogged Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima from the start — the result of a conversation overheard and misunderstood", according to Hal Buell, who wrote a book about the image.

The photo was a sensation when it appeared in newspapers in the States. Back on the war front, someone asked Mr. Rosenthal if his picture had been staged. The photographer, who did not know which frame had been published, said yes — referring to a different picture of those same Marines whooping it up for the camera at Mr. Rosenthal’s request.

Time magazine prepared an article about the alleged set-up that was never published, but details leaked out and went viral in the manner of the day. Mr. Buell, the retired head of the Associated Press photo service, says that despite film of the whole event proving the authenticity of Mr. Rosenthal’s work, a whiff of controversy stubbornly lives on."

Also discussed is John Filo's photograph from Kent State:

"One famous photo has been subject to a mundane form of fakery that it can’t seem to shake, years later. The photographer John Paul Filo caught the death of a Kent State student and the anguished reaction it provoked in a young bystander, and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. But the editors of Life magazine saw room for improvement, removing a post from behind the bystander’s head to tidy things up a bit.

The altered image has been published and republished, Mr. Filo lamented, despite his protests. “The picture keeps on living and working,” he said."

In light of the current exhibit, it is interesting to note how so many famous photographs have inspired stories that are mis-informed. To this day, people often dismiss Alfred Eisenstaedt's photograph from VJ-Day in Times Square as "staged" (it wasn't, Eisenstaed tirelessly would recount the circumstances of the photograph each time someone questioned it). And also to this day, numerous people claim the be, variously, the sailor or the nurse.

Another photograph in the exhibit that people misconstrue is Carl Mydans' photograph of General Douglas MacArthur returning to Luzon in the Philippines. Mydans' recounted in his book, Carl Mydans: photojournalist:

"I thought MacArthur was the most brilliant man I had ever known. I had good moments with him and bad moments. I rejoined MacArthur in Leyete, and was the only photographer to accompany him on his command ship the USS Boise for the invasion of Luzon. And I was invited to go ashore with him. As our landing craft neared the beach I saw that the SeaBees has laid a pontoon walkway out from the beach. I climbed the boat’s ramp and jumped onto the pontoons to photograph MacArthur. But in the instant of my jumping, I heard the boat’s engines reversing, and I saw the boat swinging away. Judging from what was happening, I raced to the beach and stood waiting for the boat to come to me. It dropped its ramp in knee-deep water and I photographed MacArthur coming ashore. No one I have ever known in public life had a better understanding of the drama and power of a picture”.

Over more than 25 years as photography dealers, we have noticed an increase in people's perception that, somehow, photographs must be "staged" or "altered". Perhaps with the spread of Photoshop and other digital technologies, we now must question what is "real".

We believe there are certain mysteries about great photographs that captivate viewers and cause us to pause in thought and remembrance. We have often seen these photographs reproduced numerous times in newspapers, magazines, books and documentaries. Yet these unforgettable images are embedded in our collective consciousness; they are defining moments chronicling our visual history.