Misrepresentation: The danger of misusing the camera’s selectivity

Inspiration Point Park
Inspiration Point Park in Denver features a hill covered in prairie grass and pine trees; a tiny sliver of wild Colorado in the heart of the city. Selective framing omits the surrounding houses and buildings, and the nearby Interstate highway. (Daniel J. Schneider)

To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.

—John Szarkowski, “The Photographer’s Eye”

With every press of the shutter release photographers make choices about what they are presenting and how they will present it; what story they are telling and how it’s told.

As modernism overtook pictorialism in the early-to-middle 20th century, and the golden age of photojournalism began in the 1930s with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith and others, viewers began to see photographs as depictions of truth.

This was by design, of course, as many photographers of that era wanted their work to shine light on events that viewers could not experience first-hand. While manipulation was not new, or even necessarily difficult, strict adherence to newly-established standards of objectivity by many photojournalists of this era helped to position news photography as almost unquestionably credible.

As photography and photojournalism have matured, more philosophical examinations of the craft continue to question the version of reality presented by photographs. Even at the most basic level, some suggest, photographers’ choices in equipment and composition, and their very presence, can alter the truth of the reality their images ultimately show.

At one extreme, consider David Campbell’s “The problem with the dramatic staging of photojournalism,” in which he examines the production of conflict photographs. Describing the observer effect without naming it, Campbell writes, “The presence of a camera changes the dynamics of any situation regardless of the intentions of the photographer.”

At the other end of the spectrum, consider that it would take a spherical panorama to encompass everything present at any given point in space (and limited to the events of a slice of time far smaller than one second, usually), leaving our rectangular negatives woefully unprepared to encompass the whole truth of anything. We strive to frame our pictures in such a way as to capture the essence of the story we hope to tell, allowing nonessential parts of the scene to fall outside the frame — or even intentionally excluding portions that would distract from the intended message.

Since the photographer’s picture was not conceived but selected, his subject was never truly discrete, never wholly self-contained. The edges of his film demarcated what he thought most important, but the subject he had shot was something else; it had extended in four direction. If the photographer’s frame surrounded two figures, isolating them from the crowd in which they stood, it created a relationship between those figures that had not existed before.”

—John Szarkowski, “The Photographer’s Eye”

Photographers learned quickly to harness that power of inclusion and exclusion (a technique now commonly called selective framing) to improve their images, pose questions through unexpected juxtapositions, and, moreover, to highlight uncommonly seen aspects of life and our world that, unnoticed, might never have been considered by most viewers.

Ideally the photographer’s choices treat the subject fairly, illuminating the important aspects without omitting anything relevant. Great care must be taken to do this in a way we could call ‘honest.’ Exactly what makes a photograph dishonest remains a subject of considerable debate and the reasons are varied, but for the sake of this discussion let’s limit ourselves to considering whether the subject is treated fairly.

Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible; of making it stand still. Or they enlarge a reality that is felt to be shrunk, hollowed out, perishable, remote.

—Susan Sontag, “On Photography”

In early 2016 controversy brewed surrounding Steve McCurry, among the most decorated living documentary photographers in the world. Stemming primarily from accusations of image manipulation, McCurry later told TIME that he thinks of himself as a “visual storyteller,” and planned to limit his future use of Photoshop (link contains a high-level overview of the whole saga — more technical details here).

In the midst of this, McCurry also came under fire for his depiction of the eponymous country in his recent monograph, “India.” In a New York Times Magazine article, Teju Cole argued that the photographs, taken over nearly 40 years, unfairly show a carefully curated and idealized Indian past instead of the honestly portraying the country’s culture, people and industry as they exist.

While the conclusions drawn may not be the most obvious example, photographers work hard to idealize reality all the time. Closer to home, consider the “iconic” monuments and scenes near you and how they are presented.

Not far from me, southwest of Aspen, Colo., are three conjoined mountains of pink Pennsylvanian/Permian shale and silstone known as the Maroon Bells. The Maroon Formation began life as ancient sea beds nearly 300 million years ago which were compressed, and later uplifted. The rock layer is still nearly three miles thick and stands out from the Precambrian rocks the compose most of the central Rocky Mountains.

Northeast of the Bells, a narrow valley nestles between Sievers Mountain and Pyramid Peak. Maroon Creek runs through the valley and into Maroon Lake. From this vantage, around sunrise, near-iconic photographs can be made almost any day of the year. It is routinely (often grudgingly) listed among Colorado’s most-photographed places (No. 10 on this list).

Search Google for images of the famous scene and there’s hardly a bum in the lot. A lot of them are heavily processed, and I suspect many of the photographers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of others waiting for sunrise. But is this an honest depiction of the Bells? Enayetur Raheem’s images of crowds and suboptimal light likely represent the view of Maroon Bells most visitors see.

Too often photography is idealizing or typecasting its subject matter. This isn’t meant as an argument against selective framing — waiting for the shot to be just right is one of the most basic differences between a snapshot and a photograph. The purpose of a work guides how you frame it to exclude unnecessary details, or work with them. Portraits, for example, specifically exclude distractions — and often the rest of the world entirely — to elevate the subject.

A portrait like Rebecca Lily’s “Merritt at the Camp,” however, is very precise in what it keeps in and what it leaves out. Lily keeps a lot of very important environment without letting it become a distraction.

By curating what’s available to the viewer we can reinforce the story by helping to avoid distraction. But it’s a double-edged sword, allowing photographers to idealize something for a purpose — but also to do it frivolously.

If all your photographs are frivolous, they are unlikely to ever result in a meaningful body of work. Extreme curation of a scene is what makes someone like Annie Leibovitz what she is. A hand-off approach — working with the background as it is and focusing on the subject an the moment — fuels great street photography.

There’s no real conclusion here, because I hope I’ve just given you enough to think about to make up your own mind about how to tell stories well with honest photographs. There is no cut-and-dried formula for doing it right; each photographer has to figure out for themselves how they’re going to curate the world and the tales they’re weaving. As we do so, inevitably a little bit of ourselves creeps into our work, and the individuality of that viewpoint is what ultimately will (or won’t) set our work apart.

It is because of that very freedom that, however, we must remember: intentional or not, we make a statement with what we choose to include and what we choose to exclude, and that our very presence can impact the nature and verity of our subjects, especially if they are people.

The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer—a scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world.

—Susan Sontag, “On Photography”

  • I’m not a fan of hyperidealized photos. I don’t mind a little enhancement, and have done that myself here and there. But I want to see it as it is. Frame it creatively. Wait for the right conditions. But show me what it *is*.

    • That’s pretty much exactly what I’m advocating for, I think. Szarkowski spoke of “windows” that the camera created as subsets of the photographer’s “cone of vision,” but for such a window to be valid, the landscape behind it must be true. Any subset thereof, then, would be an acceptable window, but manipulating the results to alter the reality or meaning of the landscape from which the frame is selected breaks the window.