The Revolution Is Upon Us

The recent use of an HDR image by a newspaper set off a debate on the propriety of using the new techniques made possible by Photoshop. This led to an examination of the age-old concept of the “Decisive Moment” and its meaning in the era of computational photojournalism.

News Photographer Magazine ran this column in April 2012.

By John Long, Ethics Chairman, NPPA

Is this a new era, one where the “decisive moment” has changed?

“What paradise does the proliferation of new media promise us? Is a byte from an Apple better than it once was? Or will it too be met by a sudden expulsion?”

After Photography, by Fred Ritchin

The recent use of a High Dynamic Range photograph by The Washington Post opened a debate on the appropriateness of using HDR imagery in the context of documentary photojournalism. The ensuing discussion seemed to center on the following issues:

  • Do members of the public feel deceived if an HDR image is presented to them?

  • Is an HDR image accurate? Does the accepted “grammar” of photography consider the multiple layers of contrast to be honest photography or just art?

  • Is the real motive that photographers want to create the most beautiful art they can or do they honestly see this as a better way to communicate accurate information?

  • Does the use of multiple images negate the concept of “moment?” Henri Cartier-Bresson defined a “decisive moment” to be that instant when form and content come together to create the perfect photograph. Does the HDR process violate this concept? As HDR and other digital techniques become the norm, will we have to redefine “moment?”

NPPA’s Ethics Committee members all agreed that there was no intention to deceive by the Post but that the controversy was due to a difference of opinion as to whether the public understood and accepted HDR as a normal technique of photography today.

I wrote a column for News Photographer magazine on HDR saying though I loved the process, I did not think the public was well enough aware of HDR for it to be used in documentary photojournalism yet, and that the general public would feel deceived if presented with HDR images in newspapers. I also said I thought this concept was in transition and that someday HDR would become just another tool in our arsenal. That was in 2008. It may be that that day has come.

I grew up on Life magazine. The “decisive moment” was our prime directive. We have always referred to our best photographs as “moments.” We did not question it, but I recently read an editorial in an excellent blog (fourandsix.com) that asked, “What if the HDR photo was instead a composite of multiple cameras firing simultaneously? Wouldn’t that represent a single moment? And, for that matter, does the NPPA have a stance on how long a single exposure can be before it stops qualifying as a single moment?”

Suddenly what I always considered sacrosanct was being questioned and I realized I had no idea how long a “moment” was. Is it a sixtieth of a second? Ten seconds? Many minutes, as it was for Mathew Brady? Or possibly hours? And what about video? What is a “moment” for a videographer? And what do you do with the new stitching tool that makes seamless images from a panned series of exposures?

What I sense is that the paradigm shift that William J. Mitchell wrote about in 1992 in The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, is coming full term. He proffered that digital photography would be different from chemical photography not just in technical terms but in being a totally new way of seeing and recording images:

“Although a digital image may look just like a photograph when it is published in a newspaper, it actually differs as profoundly from a traditional photograph as does a photograph from a painting. The difference is grounded in fundamental physical characteristics that have logical and cultural consequences.”

I have said in my talks on ethics for 25 years that photojournalism was changing and that the students growing up on Nintendo would be defining “photojournalism” differently from me, that this generation would have to find ways to make and present honest images in this new environment. I never expected the idea of “moment” to be replaced by “computational photography.” Photojournal-ism in a computer is liquid. A RAW image is merely the first step in creating a photograph.

I wonder if we have been unrealistic all these years. Have we created a mystique around the idea of “moment” that does not have a basis in fact? Is the world of W. Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, all my heroes, fading to black? Is it more appropriate to define a “moment” in terms of capturing the most significant, storytelling aspect of an event photographically over whatever time frame or series of photographic frames it takes? Should we now consider that it might take six frames to capture a “moment?” The revolution is upon us.

I will always treasure my wall full of photography books but my computer holds the images I need to see today. This is where today’s photojournalism lives and this is where the stills and video and audio information are meshed and the “truth” as we know it today is presented. A free society has to have access to accurate information in order to survive. This is our mandate as photojournalists: provide accurate, fair, and complete information so the public can make informed choices for our country. This is what the First Amendment is about. This is the Holy Grail that we as photojournalists must follow, be it chemically or digitally.

Maybe we are entering a new era where the “decisive moment” is changing and maybe this is proper.

But I am going to go pull out my Henri Cartier-Bresson book of photographs tonight and wallow a bit first.