By Joe Kashi for the Redoubt Reporter
When does a supposedly straightforward documentary photo-graph become so manipulated or “Photoshopped” as to become dishonest?
That problem’s been around since the beginning of photography. Many famous Civil War photographs were “improved” by moving and posing the bodies of dead soldiers. From our modern perspective, that practice seems ghoulish and lacking integrity. Perhaps, though, this was more understandable at a time when cameras were not mobile and the photographer wanted to make a point that was otherwise impossible, given the primitive technology of the day.
Later, Stalin became known for causing official photographs to be altered by airbrushing out the faces of generals and others who fell from Stalin’s favor after the shutter clicked. Being airbrushed out of photographs and rewritten out of history was usually only the first step on the road to being “rubbed out” by Stalin, who ruthlessly eliminated any potential rivals, not just photos of them.
More recently some of the classic, emotionally charged Depression-era photographs of starving mothers and Dust Bowl poverty have been criticized by scholars as posed images rather than truly spontaneous documentary snaps. Figure 1 is Dorothea Lange’s image of a migrant farm worker mother with seven children, while Figure 2 shows Arthur Rothstein’s image of a 1930s Dust Bowl family taking shelter from a dust storm. These images remain iconic as part of our culture, as well as controversial among scholars.
No one denies the lasting emotional power of these images but the possibility that they were not truly spontaneous documentation does raise some concerns because they were widely used to bolster public support for President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I did some digital cleanup of this week’s public-domain images by running them through Lightroom. I increased contrast and better separated the black and white tones so that these photos would reproduce more effectively on low-resolution newsprint.