Is it journalism or is it art?

By John Long

Editor’s note: Recently several photography directors and picture editors have asked about the ethical considerations of HDR (high dynamic range) photography and using HDR images in their publications. The chair of NPPA’s Ethics & Standards Committee, John Long, has taken a look at HDR photography and shares his thoughts on the practice.

A different way to see: Using the HDR technique, new tones appear in Milan's train station. (HDR photograph by Trey Ratcliff)

I recently took a look at a Web site about HDR (high dynamic range) photography and the explanation on how it’s done, and this is wonderful stuff. We have been aware for almost 20 years (when the digital age began) that the computer would allow us to make images in great new ways. This HDR technique definitely is great and allows us to make photographs that were never possible before. Someday this – and all sorts of new techniques – will become commonplace and part of the normal grammar of photography. This is fine. This is more than fine, this is inevitable – and greatly to be desired. HDR can be thought of as analogous to the introduction of color to photography. Autochrome was a total mystery and marvel when it was introduced, but over time color became “normal.” HDR could eventually be like that. There are many computer techniques that could become normal in future years. I have no problem with this concept. I love the idea of exploring all the new and exciting things photography can become.

However ... this is today. In this day and age, the public has a perception of what makes an honest photograph. True, this is in many ways just convention. But there is a general understanding of what makes an honest photograph and HDR and other new techniques are not part of this perception, at least not yet. The public has a vision of what a photograph is and what a real news photograph looks like, and we must work within this perception if we are to communicate honestly with our readers. To be honest in journalism we must work within the boundaries of public expectations.

Ethics evolve and adapt to the technology at hand. I have no idea if the HDR technique will ever be accepted as normal and as a way to communicate honestly in a documentary situation, but I love the use of HDR photography in the world of art. HDR photography is an example of a new idea in a new age; HDR is way beyond what a Cokin filter can do.

Photography has evolved since its inception, and this is just a new example of this evolution. I have no problem with the technique or the results, but it does not belong on news pages, at least not yet. The technique has the same status for me as the Andy Warhol solarization of photographs: it is art, not journalism.

I also have a problem with the fact that some HDR images are multiple “moments” that are combined, and this is not what the public expects from news photographs. News photographs are “single” moments. And while I love the images, I do not think they are appropriate for newspapers except as examples of artwork. They are not what the public understands to be documentary photographs, yet.

I do not want to stifle art or experimentation or the joy of photographic exploration, but in the world of news we have to work within the limits that the public has come to believe are the parameters of honest documentary photography.