September 18, 2006

9/11 and photo manipulation: No Photoshop needed

Last month the world debated the integrity of photography in an era of easy digital manipulation. This month, attention turns to the interpretations we (photographers, viewers, writers) attach to images.
Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker recently published a photo of young New Yorkers appearing to chat and relax while Ground Zero burned across the river behind them. Columnist Frank Rich saw in the image a symbol of American denial, disbelief, and demand to move on. Hoepker replied, adding context and asking some searching questions (“How would I have looked on that day to a distanced observer? Probably like a coldhearted reporter, geared to shoot the pictures of his life”). And the couple on the wall responded, hotly denying any lack of seriousness. [Via]
So many kinds of truth here…
What if the people in the photo had been caught sharing a smile while New York smoldered in the background? Well? In the city that Friday, my friends and I went out for beers near a lifeless Times Square; on the weekend we shopped for a new PC. Was that all wrong? You could give money, blood–but what the hell else could you do? If the folks in the photo were cracking the tension, I don’t think I can condemn them.
And what about the claim that the subjects represent something fundamental about America–a shortness of attention, a need to escape from tragedy? In the summer before 9/11, the country obsessed over shark attacks, pop stars, and missing white women on cable news. Now it’s stingray attacks, pop stars, and missing white women on cable news. Do the particulars of the conversation in that photo, whether serious or trivial, determine whether the photo is emblematic of something deep and troubling about our culture? You tell me.
For me the conversation throws the debate over digital manipulation into greater perspective: the battle for truth is fought on many fronts, and compared to the questions over what meaning can and should be assigned to images, the technical side starts to look straightforward. The bits matter, but we see in them what we want and need to see.
Related: Slate hosts a gripping and well produced Magnum Photos essay on 9/11. Susan Meiselas talks about seeing teams of doctors rushing around, slowly realizing how little they could do.
[Update: See also this daguerreotype of 9/11. [Via]

Posted by John Nack at 7:06 AM on September 18, 2006
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