The Darkening Effect of Memory

Over at Bag News Notes, Michael Shaw looks at the retoning of images shot by James Nachtwey on September 11, 2001 – all of the images are appearing darker than when originally published eleven years ago.

He makes some good arguments for why this may be, particularly that the editors who scanned and prepped those images weren’t on the scene and didn’t know how they should look. But still, the toning is so drastic one has to believe, as Shaw points out, that maybe art is taking over our historical journalism.

Mark E. Johnson

2 Responses

  1. As someone who as actually worked as a retoucher for Jim, I can tell your a couple of things about the photos from 9/11.

    Firstly though, Jim’s photos are much more heavily retouched than you might imagine for “normal” PJ work. There are no global adjustments. Everything is carefully masked and adjusted individually. Photos are also carefully dodged and burned much like in a darkroom (recall the scene in War Photographer). It takes about a day to retouch each photo.

    On 9/11, Jim’s cameras were trashed. I was told that when he left the Time Life building that evening, the chair that he was sitting in left a perfect outline of his body in dust. Each time he changed film rolls more and more dust got inside the cameras. There were huge scratches on some of the negs, and it’s a real testament to the retouchers abilities that you can’t even tell.

    Secondly, not only were Jim’s retouchers not as skilled 11 years ago (I’ve seen the files with 100s of layers), the technology they were using isn’t as good. Jim is really big into creating dynamic range, so there is almost never a “lost” black or white. He really milks the details in the midtones. I think that this provides a photo that is more accurate to what the eye sees.

    So, the overall effect might be a slightly darker image, but it is undoubtedly one with a greater dynamic range (not sure what’s going on in that final image with the 3 guys though).

    Finally, these images, while journalistic, are also art. Jim’s compositions, exposures, and moments are so thoughtful and deliberate that to call them anything else would be a disservice to the greatest PJ of our time. I’ve looked through hundreds of rolls of his film, and on every roll there is at least one frame that is better than any you will ever take. He’s that good.

  2. Thanks for the background, Dylan. Don’t think I knew you worked with him and I completely agree that finding a contemporary whose work has so consistently risen above everyone else’s is going to be impossible.

    I did know about the heavier hand in printing/toning, not as heavy as Gene Smith’s work, but still there and it’s something I’ve wondered about. For me, post-production (whether in a dark room or software) has always been about overcoming the mechanical limitations of photography and brining a sense to the viewer of what the photographer saw. At times, this can feel overdone – and that’s the sense I get with some of these images.

    While I wasn’t there, on that day I was a picture editor for a New York paper and looked at thousands of images, many processed by editors who weren’t there but some were handled by the photojournalists who made them. None, from my recollection, were this moody.

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