I’m all for a head pop or a leg or arm or whatever needs poppin’ as long as it’s from the same photo session who cares and really who can tell when the head in an image is replaced with a head from 5 min. later so you can get the correct facial expression.Retouching is so ubiquitous in photography anymore and really we’ve been doing it forever–I mean check this out (here), you will shit your pants when you see all the images that have been altered over the years–that I really don’t care about switching body parts to get a killer cover that will sell on the newsstand.

But, when you’re the New York Times Magazine and you have a photo alteration policy like this:

Photography and Images. Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions). Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the “burning” and “dodging” that formerly took place in darkroom processing of images. Pictures of news situations must not be posed. In the cases of collages, montages, portraits, fashion or home design illustrations, fanciful contrived situations and demonstrations of how a device is used, our intervention should be unmistakable to the reader, and unmistakably free of intent to deceive. Captions and credits should further acknowledge our intervention if the slightest doubt is possible. The design director, a masthead editor or the news desk should be consulted on doubtful cases or proposals for exceptions. Source (here)

and then you clearly run a photo on Steve Nash on the cover (here) that is so perfect if you didn’t pop his head you popped the arm or leg or ball or all of the above:


I’m going to call you out on it.

Finlay Mackay feel free to tell me I’m wrong and I’ll eat crow.

Correction: It appears I’m wrong about Finlay Mackay retouching the image of Steve Nash according to a commenter who I believe was on set when the image was taken.

Fact is I’m a bit jealous at how perfect it is and probably prone to arm and head and leg poppin’ my lazy ass self instead of getting Nash to do 200 goddam takes. My hat is off to you Finlay. Lucky for me my readers have provided a recipe for Crow that I may substitute with pigeon for convenience sake.

Recommended Posts


  1. maybe. but then why not just shoot it? there is nothing special about this photo. its three flashes on stands, a gym with turn down light, and Mr Nash does things like this all day long, its his job.

    nice photo.

  2. Tell me the pix in the NY Times magazine and T isn’t retouched. Puh-LEEZE.

    Raymond Meier, who’s been shooting all the covers for T for a while now, was one of the first photographers I heard about having a drum scanner and an in-house lightjet printer. And this was 8-10 years back when retouching gear was tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. I can’t think of a fashion photographer working today who doesn’t have images retouched.

  3. Call me naive but I’ll choose to believe it was a single shot. As Bernd wrote above, I can imagine shooting this guy doing that 200 times, he’s graceful at what he does, it just might look like that or close to it 80% of the time. I’ve shot dancers in the past jumping and leaping, each shot looked incredibly graceful and “perfect”. It was very hard to choose but one in 25 would have it all together: arms, legs, expression, etc.

    But then …. maybe it was 5 photo composite.

  4. Think you’re mistaken on this one PE as far as the head goes. But they coulda dropped in the ball.

  5. You can call NYT out on it all day long but since when is the NYT the bastion of authenticity? They could give a rats ass that you are going to call them out on it. Few major rags have had greater issues with the truth thant the NYT over the past 5 years.

    Just for starters consider their entire mission statement and then look at their contract with freelance photographers which completely ties the hands of photographers and is about the most devious work for hire contract known to man. At least Conde’ Nast comes right out and tells you they are raping you.

    Call them out. Have fun.

  6. I worked for a fashion photographer who did a cover/editorial for NYT a while back, and I know for a fact it was retouched just as much as any other job he shot, composites and all…

  7. Like others I think this picture could very well be captured like it is. I have taken pictures myself where people were convinced I retouched it but I just caught the right moment (with luck and a lot of exposures)

    But isn’t the question really if this is an “actual news scene” or a journalistic picture? I think one could argue that this is more a “sport moment – photo illustration” or something like that. Admittedly I wouldn’t want to have the job to define that.

    With fashion spreads – I think its quite clear though that it doesn’t apply to these shots.

    I appreciate that they have a policy – even if there are a lot of grey areas, at least they are trying to define what documentary and journalistic mean today.

  8. I definitely think that the NYTimes’ use of images has been lax at times. I like it better when they create collages or use illustrations when it is not about depicting “reality”.

    And I think this floating-subject photography stuff is not suited to news articles unless it is made clear that the image IS NOT depicting reality. Or if the article is not about “news.”

    And on that note, I don’t even like it when they use images by Vincent Laforet that is basically abstract photography. Call me anal, but I think it’s more art than journalism. I think it’s part of the pervasive infotainment “problem” we are having, just like CNN.

    And if they are to use Vincent Laforet’s images, I think they should use them in a clearly artistic context, or risk eroding the definition of “photojournalism.”

  9. well I think there is one rule for the newspaper and one rule for the magazine.

  10. How do they enforce this policy? Do they collect the original film or raw files?

    Personally, I like the policy, and use something like it myself – not as a rule so much, but as a general mindset. I may have removed a minor blemish *occasionally*, but the idea of reworking an image digitally kills the whole joy and point of photography for me.

  11. When I see images like this one of Sheryl Crow, for example, you just wonder, did they drag a HighHigh out into this water? An ocean of infinity, but there happens to be an OctoBox right there in the water? Hmm. And then, the next issue is Heather Graham, basically in the same scene. Is there a Shape Magazine Ocean Photo Studio somewhere, or maybe just a few stock images lying around, and a good retoucher that skews toward orange and pink?


    As far as the NY Times, it just gets dicey when, as you’re lying in bed on a Sunday morning, flipping the pages, and as you lie down the uncoated newsprint section, you leave one set of standards, and then you pick up The Magazine, and instantly, you walk into a whole other set of retouching standards. But both sections have the NYTimes logo in the Old English font, presumably, the same mindset.

    You also have to watch for when they use fine artists (photographers), but they don’t clearly label the imagery as illustration. They simply credit it as “Photo by _____”, and leave it at that.

    You just have to wonder how much of this is advertiser-driven, and the whole goal is “everything be perfect”, and the truth be damned. Could we not start with just a clearly written caption? “Hey, we swapped the heads. We trimmed her thighs with the Liquify Filter. We retouched the skin, (a lot). That background was never there; she was in a photo studio at Industria.” It might make someone think twice if they had to sit down and write the caption, listing everything done, knowing it was going to be published.

  12. Jayson–I’m not going to argue that the Sheryl Crow cover isn’t heavily retouched, because of course it is (we don’t even know what real skin looks like anymore) . But as an assistant, I will say that I’ve hung Profoto 7B packs on stands in several feet of water a few more times than I’d like. That part could have been done in camera.

  13. Jayson – at the risk of highjacking this post, I’m fairly certain the shot was a composite. The water doesn’t look like it was lit by the same light as Ms. Crow.

  14. Werner- not true about fashion photography.

    Sure, it’s not held to the same standards as, say, war reportage, but the clothing is often reworked, from liquefy-ing a silhouette to shortening a hem to removing seams, wrinkles, tears & runs, zippers and all kinds of “alterations” to the clothing. In fact, fashion imagery generally is there to **sell** the clothing they’re featuring (sure it’s “editorial” but what do you think gets a particular company to advertise?)… to quote the NY Times’ policy, it’s not always “unmistakable to the reader”.

    That said, I think the point of the original post was to illustrate that altered photos are as old as photography itself and about the NY Times’ selective enforcement of their “policy”. If you ask me, the NY Times photo policy is ridiculous for absolving burning, dodging and cropping. Those decisions alter the meaning of an image by the very virtue of being decisions of what information is included or excluded from an image.

    Fact is, photography is never an “objective” medium so why behave as if it is?

  15. If you can’t tell when something has been “popped” or not why do it?

    It’s a cute term, but personally, I’m tired of constantly being popped by politicians. Does it work in that context?

    The same thing happens with CGI in film. People fly around and do amazing things, but you know it’s not real, so there’s no emotional impact.

    Sometimes the best, most beautiful thing is the imperfections. The realness.

    The perfect photos are fake, not cool. Every viewer can feel it even if the don’t express it. Perfectness weakens the medium and levels the playing field, so there’s no greatness rising above the crowd.

    How else can you explain the great sales/reviews of Brittney Spears latest album?

    Terry Richardson is a (literally) crappy photographer, but at least he’s real.

    Maybe that explains his success in the plastic world of fashion.

  16. Actually, Terry retouches too. Sorry to burst your bubble.

  17. The New York Times Magazine published a picture of mine and retouched it themselves without even mentioning it to me. The first I knew was when I saw it it the magazine. The picture was from a series on a beauty pageant in Libya and showed a scantily clad pageant girl lying in front of some rather more heavily clad Libyan women in the Sahara desert. From the angle I shot you can see a tiny bit of the girls underwear. Which was apparently deemed to be so offensive they extended her skirt an inch or two to cover the offending lingerie… You can see the photo on my website by going to http://www.muirvidler.com click on ‘projects’ then ‘libyan beauty pageant’. Its the first picture in the series.

  18. Muir —
    Personally, I think I would have preferred the underwear not to show. I think it’s gratuitous and I think that warrants photo manipulation so as not to offend people unnecessarily. It’s already enough of a statement just to show her in a mini-skirt in front of the other ladies in dresses. But they should have notified you about the manipulation though.

    Israeli Death Metal… nice.

  19. I will bet that the image was made in camera.

  20. I’m with the panties, showing them that is but I couldn’t fault an editor for making the call to make the fix. My favorite imperfection is the bruise (or birthmark) on her thigh.

  21. why is it so hard to accept that a skilled photographer and a skilled athlete can work together to produce such an image through good technique, cooperation and persistence without resorting to post-production compositing? people do it all the time. and all photos these days are worked on in some way in post-production, even if it’s just a skin tone, contrast or saturation adjustment. but to assume that a photo like this had to have been created in post is unfair. and even if it was, so what? the only issue here seems to be whether the NY Times’ strict rules about manipulation of photographs apply to pictures in the magazine. it’s clear that many NYT Magazine stories are features using illustrations and not news stories. so what’s the problem? it’s a very nice, set-up picture of a great athlete. you either like it or you don’t. but once you publish a set-up picture I think discussions of whether it’s journalistically ethical to alter the image in post are ridiculous.

  22. this posting is funny, because I am also reading about Hillary Clinton pulling out of a vanity fair shoot today and says ‘leibovitz had cameras in hand’……There would have been some retouching going on there.

  23. I happened to be at this shoot. Finlay captured this image just as you see it aside from the crop and adjustments to the contrast and color. Finlay and Steve are both professionals, working together, they got a perfect shot, one that is almost too good to be real.

  24. yeah, don’t see the big deal with that shot.

    any skilled photog from the good ol’days knows you would shot an 4×5 or 8×10 tranny exactly as you wanted it to run in press.

    It’s not that big of a deal, just knowing what you’re doing and taking the time to do it.

  25. Apologies to everyone for a slight highjack, but since we’re on the subject of the NYTimes, and morals and ethics, I encourage everyone to view the post today, on the Magnum Blog — 29 photographs of the last Magnum meeting.

    You’ve got Today, where as A.P.E. says, “retouching is ubiquitous anymore”, and then you’ve got these Magnum folks, who are still shooting away. I know times are changing, and celebrities rule the world, but you just have to view these 29 images, and think of the combined imagery of these people, and feel respect.

    Paul Fusco’s picture of the RFK Funeral Train still sends chills up my spine, every time I see it.

    http://blog.magnumphotos.com/ (Nov 1 post)

    If you don’t know each of their work, just spend some time with Google, or on the Magnum site.

    Sorry for the diversion. Now back to regular programming.

  26. That magnum site is inspiring. All those photos pop and you know there is very little Photoshoping going on. Nice link

  27. […] A Photo Editor » Blog Archive » Retouching: The Head Pop It appears I’m wrong about Finlay Mackay retouching the image of Steve Nash (tags: photojournalism ethics) […]

  28. Here’s a similar type of shot and the photographer’s actual comments on the process of creating the image. Definitely no “popping” here.

  29. re: giacomo

    great jump for a one legged basketball player…..

  30. I think the very fact you automatically assumed this was a comp is scary. It shows the number of shoddy photographers working out there who can’t be bothered, or maybe just can’t, get a photo right first time. The world can be perfect without being fixed.

  31. It looks to me, reading the digital tampering in the media page, that the only thing which seems to have changed in all that time, is that some alterations are worse now than their earlier counterparts. Who said that digital was better? ;-)

  32. […] “editing” photos to see how far back the practice actually extends. Over at the blog A Photo Editor ( blog by a Photo Editor at a “National Magazine”) the writer comments on the New York […]

  33. What?
    What’s real anyways?
    Who says?

Comments are closed for this article!