Transcribing the Real – Part One

Above is a photograph that immediately caught my eye among the mass of photos coming out of Las Vegas in the wake of the insanity there. It was taken by Chase Stevens, a staff photographer with the LV Review-Journal. At the risk of aestheticising other people’s misfortune, it’s a beautiful photo in its own way in addition to having documentary value. Were I to know nothing about Mr. Stevens, I’d assume he’s familiar with Frank/Friedlander/Freed/Winogrand, as the photo mirrors that aesthetic, and the use of black and white references the film era. As for its documentary value, it’s less a stand-alone photo than one in a series of photographs illustrating what happened that night, but it certainly works as one in a series. You can see the series here, along with a short article about Steven’s excellent work that night.

If you clicked through the link I’ve provided, you’re probably confused, because the photo used in the link is not the one above but rather this one:

The Las Vegas Tropicana on lockdown on Oct. 1, 2017. Chase Stevens—Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP 

same photo, but in color and obviously digital. I prefer the b&w version; you may be indifferent or prefer the later.

The B&W version is actually my creation (apologies to Mr. Stevens). I downloaded his photo as published and ran it through Silver Efex with a B&W film emulation that specified certain tone, contrast and grain values inherent in a given film stock (in this instance I think it was Kodak Plus X, maybe my favorite B&W film of all time, unfortunately no longer manufactured). I did it because my aesthetic sense told me, the first time I saw the photo, it should a ‘B&W photo’; that what seemed to me the obvious reference back to Robert Frank’s 1955 Manhattan cowboy photo required it be B&W:

Or maybe I’m overthinking this, but I suspect not.  I’m fairly certain that Mr. Stevens has some familiarity with Frank’s image, and the photo he decided to take that night owes some unconscious debt to Frank. I’m certainly not criticizing him in any way: that’s how creativity works. We learn by assimilating the work that’s come before, and if we’re good, we find a way to put our own small spin on an established aesthetic, the result being our own idiosyncratic photographic style. Creators who are truly sui generis, unique with no real creative antecedents, come along very infrequently, maybe once or twice a century in any given discipline. The painters Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollack come to mind, in photography HCB and Robert Frank.


The larger question for me, what led me to manipulate Mr. Steven’s photo to suite my tastes, is the issue of the “objectivity” of photographs. As photographers, I assume all of us have at some point in our photographic evolution realized that the naive belief that photos objectively show “things that happened” in an unbiased way, without containing any subjective adulteration is, well, naive.

If Mr. Stevens had done what I’d done – ran his files through Silver Efex before he turned them in to his editor, would that have constituted an improper manipulation of his supposedly objective photographs that violated journalistic ethics? If so, what if, in the race to get to the scene Mr. Stevens had grabbed an old Leica loaded with Tri-X and shot his assignment with it? How would that differ, from an ethical perspective, from him shooting the scene with an M240 in RAW mode and sending the whole thing off to the editors for selection and editing? Is one more genuine, more real than the other? And if one is, what gives us the right to say so?

I’ve been thinking about these questions because I’ve been binge-watching Ken Burn’s documentary on the Viet Nam War, currently running on public television here in the States. What strikes me is the incredible aesthetic beauty of the era’s photography (as distinct from the often disturbing subject matter), most of it B&W 35mm film, a beauty that digital documentary simple is incapable of. This is the photography I cut my teeth on, so I’m biased, but my opinion is that that B&W Film documentary aesthetic, de rigeur through the late 70’s, is effective in a way that digital capture simply isn’t. Is it “more real?” No. More “objective?” No. “Better?” Yes. Of course, this claim for the relative quality of one versus the other is subjective to an extent, but I’ll argue in future posts that it has an objective basis. I may even drag a few “philosophers” into the discussion. Humor me as we proceed.


11 thoughts on “Transcribing the Real – Part One

  1. Rob Campbell

    The surprising thing about the photograph is the sense of quiet.

    It could amost be one of those laboured epics by Gregory Crewdson. Sarah Moon has said that she’d like to make a photograph where nothing happens, but for nothing to happen, something has to happen first. I found that rather confusing and doubtful; however, this could be one of those moments to which she was referring. Which makes me even less sure than I was before.

  2. ijurado

    I typically don’t appreciate when people take others’ work and reinterpret or re-edit since the results are usually more indicative of the editors’ personal taste. However, in this case, I agree with you that the black and white treatment actually helps the picture since it loses the feel of a ‘snapshot’ and moves into a ‘moment.’

    I was born in the mid-1970s, so I may be showing my preference as well, but in terms of aesthetics, tone, and feel – the b&w is so much more impactful.

    I think it also shows what a strong image it is, to survive and be interpreted so differently in two different treatments. Congratulations to Chase Stevens for the image and to you for reinterpreting and re-contextualizing it so effectively.

  3. Rob Campbell


    I’m at the opposite end of the time spectrum to you, being of pre-war issue. (WW2, I mean.)

    My career in photography was mainly about b/w imagery with very little colour print ever being require, but lots of transparency work being what colour meant to me and my peers.

    Today, long retired, it’s almost entirely b/white. Why? Simply because it lends itself to interpretation after the event. Interpretation has become, especially after the introducion of digital, the new horizon that offers one as much possibilty as one is capable of using to good effect. Of course, that’s often abused and work becomes nonsense. It could be argued that that also applies to colour, that digital lets you go further and more easily so. Yes, but the problem I find is that exaggerated colour simply looks silly, not dramatic or mood-inducing, just crappy.

    Your date of birth indicates that you just missed the birth of the new direction that came to be accepted as the norm during the 60s. By the time you would have been old enough to appreciate the changes, the changes had already become the norm. But what you probably missed was that a huge amount of what was going on that was new was also in black/white. Colour was never as flexible, and many of the attempts at new colour, viewed through today’s prism, remind one of bad Photoshopping excesses.

  4. Allan

    The color version has a lovely palette, beige and black with a dark red accent. Painterly and subtle…. until you get to that bright blue sweatshirt where the wheels fall of and the picture is ruined. I would have cropped that off, or maybe tried to desaturate the blue down to a blue-gray. Or something.
    The black and white version is immeasurably better as a photograph.

    I’ve been watching “The Viet Nam War” too, and I had exactly the same reaction to the photographs. In a few cases the picture took me completely out of the narrative, and I stopped the playback so I could really look at it. That’s what documentary photography looks like, and I don’t think anybody does that any more. The (mostly digital, mostly color) pictures that have come out of our more recent wars look like snapshots to me. The Viet Nam pictures focus on the faces and the interactions between the soldiers, and often follow the old rules of composition, and they’re gut-wrenching and beautiful at the same time.

    I’m thinking, for instance, of the Henri Huet picture of the soldier with his arms stretched toward the sky, guiding in a medivac.

    And (a technical note) they weren’t just shot on some random 35mm film. 95% of them were shot on Tri-X, using the war photographer’s standard kit of a Leica with a 35 or 50, and a Nikon F with perhaps a 105. The combination makes no sense, because all the controls of the two cameras work in opposite directions, but when I started in photography that’s what I used, because of them. I was young and not very bright, and it made me feel serious.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Rob, I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about the issues I raised in the second to last paragraph. If I was a staff photographer working that night and turned in my files as b&w jpgs, would that be unethical manipulation given the digital standards now in place? And if it does, what would happen if i had grabbed my Leica M5 with some hp5 in it to shoot the scene? I’m genuinely confused by these issues. Maybe you as a long time pro can weigh in…

  5. Rob Campbell

    Tim –

    Posted comment last night – it’s a bit long, and maybe it hasn’t been accepted by the system because of that.

    If so, I can send it to you by e-mail if you like. Let me know.

  6. apparently

    I talked to my daughter about this, she is a picture editor for a major picture library. She said that it doesn’t really matter what the photog does with his work, since the agency credits the work to the photographer.

    If some work has been manipulated to tell a different story, the offence lands at the feet of the photographer rather than the agency. It is up to the photographer to remain true(ish) to his subject if he doesn’t wish to attract the wrong kind of attention… Steve McCurry for instance. No longer a documentary photographer, more of a creative artist (if you like chocolates).

  7. Ron Himebaugh

    The slide of McCurry (not necessarily down, can be sideways) is perfect. When image manipulation was difficult, it was not so much an issue because it was not worth the trouble. You staged the picture. Now it is pre-, post-, or both. It is a key feature of digital tech.

    In contrast consider that Cartier, rejecting the label “photo-journalist” nonetheless famously would not alter a scene, would not move a feather, would not even light it. Then having his picture he would not crop it. Not so much because it was false to the original scene– a concern for the journalist–as because it was false to his sense of aesthetic integrity to what he had seen, apprehended, and captured in a fraction of a second. Well, that’s what he said anyway, and the fact that he even thought about it put him well beyond the typical feature photographer.

    And then the atypical feature photographer, Eugene Smith, equally concerned about truth but laboring intensely in the darkroom, getting the shadows and highlights in the most satisfying relationship, taking hours to get a print that likely exagerrated what he saw in the viewfinder…….or maybe he worked that hard to get exactly what he saw?

    Neither man would fare well as artists in our alternate facts, “truthiness” era I imagine.


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