What Peter Lik Has To Do With The 20% Of Images That Did Not Pass The Journalism Test

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Photo by Barry Schwartz

Two stories caught my eye recently, both from the New York Times, published within a few days of each other.

One is “Peter Lik’s Recipe for Success: Sell Prints. Print Money”. From the article: “He has sold $440 million worth of prints, according to his chief financial officer, in 15 galleries in the United States that he owns and that sell his work.”

An extraordinary amount of money for any (living) artist to claim. The chief focus of the article is an explanation of why the world of fine art photography does not consider Lik to be an artist despite — perhaps because of — his having duplicated their business structure.  Absent the context of the art world, there is no Peter Lik.

The other story is from the Times’ Lens Blog, ”Debating the Rules and Ethics of Digital Photojournalism”. The World Press Photo competition has, for many years, been among the most prestigious photography prizes a photojournalist could hope to win. The most recent competition drew almost 98,000 images by 5,692 photographers. In announcing the winners last February, World Press noted that it had summarily rejected 20% of the submitted images for being overly manipulated and not up to journalistic standards, almost three times the percentage from the previous year.

Photo manipulation has been a sensitive topic among photojournalists since…always. Once digital photography became the dominant mode for making pictures (along with the ease by which a photo can be transformed) the standards defining what makes images “overly” manipulated has been in the news, so to speak. Last year’s World Press Photo winner was a picture of a Palestinian funeral that generated so much speculation about its veracity the organization was impelled to hire forensic experts to ascertain if the photographer had crossed the line from photojournalism to something else entirely. While the eventual judgement pronounced the image within bounds, there was the suggestion it had come right up to the line.

What links the two articles are judgements based on community standards.

Members of the fine art photography community (curators, photographers, and collectors) understand the rules, including the fact that all rules are subject to change over time: sometimes centuries, sometimes a few years. This fact obliterates any objective standard. What is highly valued as fine art today may not be valued next decade, and the reverse. This is not a problem for insiders; part of their job is to stay abreast of the changes.

Peter Lik does not care about any of this; he’s not in it for the art, he’s in it, quite happily, for the money. He has learned to use the rules in place right now to his benefit. What the New York Times piece does, by way of Mr. Lik, is pull back the curtain on galleries and museums to reveal the functioning of the culture of fine art photography.

Journalism, as the saying goes, is the job of producing the first draft of history, and the culture of journalism takes that burden very seriously.  Professional standards demand a certain amount of reflective examination of the work product in terms of accuracy based on point-of-view, along with the implicit acknowledgment that interpretations may or may not change over time.  Just like fine art, there is no objective standard: but there are standards nonetheless.

World Press competition guidelines are intended to mirror journalistic standards.  Judges are on the lookout for overly-manipulated images such as those which have elements being added or removed, which can be accomplished as simply as darkening an area (burning in) so it turns black and elements disappear. There are multiple ways the meaning of a photograph can be changed by how it’s processed. In some cases, according to Michelle McNally, the jury chair, “When the entries were compared with the originals we could not recognize them as being the same picture.”

World Press validates pictures in the final round by requiring photographers additionally submit “RAW” image files. Unprocessed RAW files (think of a negative or a slide) are something quite distinct from the heavily processed image files produced in-camera by most consumer-level cameras and cellphones. RAW files, the basis of most professional photography, are where the post-production begins.  It was the RAW file of the Palestinian funeral that was examined by forensic experts who finally determined the winning image remained within the bounds of competition rules, and by default, within bounds of what the community of photojournalists and editors consider the highest standard of photojournalism.

The value of a photograph – and a photographer – is determined by their cultures and their communities, be they monetary, aesthetic, or journalistic values, fine art or photojournalism.  That those standards are subject to change in no way diminishes their merit.

Values, standards, and objective truths are hard to pin down, since they are constantly shifting. It’s much more reliable to pay attention to what communities think, one objective truth at a time.