As an elitist media consumer, I am a big fan of NPR's On The Media, a show that never fails to amaze me with their nuanced metaview. Today they devoted 15 minutes to an in-depth look at the ethical and practical issues around political and celebrity portraiture. This is so worth a listen. I have never seen the issues looked at with this degree of complexity. It changed my mind regarding the Jill Greenberg controversy regarding her portrait of John McCain, which is the lead example in the piece.
I initially agreed with Rob Haggart's opinion on the matter (Jill Greenberg Is Not Afraid to Dump All Her Clients At Once). The story goes like this. Jill had an assignment to photograph John McCain for The Atlantic. She loathes the man. After the Atlantic portrait shot, she led him to a second lighting setup, where the strobe lit him only from below, the classic malevolent lighting setup. The modeling lights were rigged in such a way that this wasn't apparent to anyone who didn't know how these things work. “I do the job that's asked of me that day, and what I do beyond that is not really anyone's business,” was her rationalization. She was roundly condemned, rightly, I thought at the time. Now, I'm not so sure.
Here is Bob Garfield's penultimate summary, 10 minutes in. “In photography, this reality thing is hard to pin down. Each of a sitting's dozens or hundreds of shots is a frozen two dimensional representation of a living, moving three dimensional being. A laser sliced instant invisible in real time. It may be a reasonable likeness, it may express some mood or personality, but it is, by definition, out of context, altered by angle, lighting and optics.”
Platon: “It's such a strange artistic process, that it's very difficult to express in words. I mean, you could say, I'm a disturber, or, I'm a professional outsider, and I come in and try to disturb the status quo. To be honest, I'm often surprised that I'm allowed to carry on doing what I do every day. But I haven't been stopped yet, and I'm still waiting to be sent out of the country for bad photographic behaviour. ”
What constitutes the photographic equivalent of“gotcha journalism,” what is creative assertion of a point of view, what about the marketplace demand for an off kilter image to cut through newsstand clutter, how about naiveté from political subjects? These are great questions. Listen to the piece.