Interesting conversation over on the NPR radio show On The Media (here) where host Bob Garfield talks with Martin Schoeller, Jill Greenberg, Platon and former DOP of Time Magazine Maryanne Golon about the ethics of portrait photography. It’s interesting because he’s looking for answers about the journalistic responsibility photographers have to subjects and viewers but he’s not asking photojournalists he’s asking celebrity portrait photographers who by and large as you will hear or read don’t really take that into consideration when making pictures. It’s a good discussion to have because publications like Time have long since crossed over into hiring photographers that will give them more punch on the newsstand and less of a balanced look at the subject.
“one category of mass media photography operates with hardly any rules at all”
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There’s much more in there but I really enjoyed this exchange:
MARTIN SCHOELLER: I think there has been a long tradition in portrait photography where photographers try to capture a person’s personality, rather than feeling obliged in trying to make them look good. The best example, I think, is Richard Avedon. I mean, you feel like he would take your picture and you would come across as mentally challenged. I don’t think Avedon ever tried to please anyone but himself with his portraits.
BOB GARFIELD: Nor Schoeller himself. His ultratight portraits, which have appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, are typically grim mug shots, sort of Chuck Close meets your driver’s license photo. His Jack Nicholson could be a serial rapist, and his Barack Obama resembles Abraham Lincoln, homely wart and all.
The shots are arty and arresting but not exactly flattering, although Schoeller takes issue with that characterization.
MARTIN SCHOELLER: I don’t think my pictures are unflattering, to be honest. The light is very flattering. It’s not a wide-angle lens; they’re not distorted. I just think that people are nowadays not used to seeing people as people anymore, and your perception of the environment is so twisted by all these pictures that you see in magazines and advertisements that if you see a person just for who they are, you are really shocked.
BOB GARFIELD: Are we indeed so conditioned to the unreal world of ads and celebrity photography that we, the audience, can’t handle the truth? Certainly, magazine photography, at least where movie stars aren’t involved, is not hagiography. It is not commissioned to flatter the subject. But whether you’re JFK sitting for Karsh of Ottawa or the family next door posing in sweaters at Olan Mills, no one wants to look mentally challenged or criminal, or demonic, or even unattractive.
So do portraitists and editors have any responsibility to their subjects’ basic vanity? Reporters certainly don’t. If the reporting doesn’t distort facts or context, nobody has a beef. Why should photography be held to a different standard?
PLATON: All I can do is to try and find a human quality and break through all of these plastic walls that are put up in front of me and my sitter, and all the time restrictions and all the pressure that they try to bombard me with to stop me finding perhaps my sense of what the truth is.
One thing that Bob seems to be missing in this whole discussion is that it’s the magazine that determines the ethics of the photography they use. It’s the magazine’s job to fact check not only the stories but also the photography. There are almost always many images to choose from a shoot and the final selection of images to run will ultimately determine the tone of how the subject is portrayed. The editors are making those final decisions. It’s up to the readers to align themselves with magazines that deliver whatever level of ethics in storytelling they are comfortable with.