Photographers as Enterprises: McCurry vs Mapplethorpe

While there’s little in McCurry’s work that I appreciate, I love Mapplethorpe’s work. so why bring them together?

Recently, due to McCurry‘s huge exibition at Le Venaria Reale,  in Italy, a discussion arouse about “his” use of Photoshop. The story is as follows: while visiting the exhibition, photographer Paolo Viglione noticed something odd in one photograph and decided to share his thoughts with the world. What that photograph denounces is not Photoshop overuse but, instead, its misuse. The editing error made me think of how disconnected McCurry must be to his own work and how his enterprise came about.

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Avana, Cuba, 2014. Photogaph shared by Viglione.

There are several paradigms at issue here, one of them being the circumstances that made this error possible. Yesterday I watched the latest documentary about Mapplethorpe (Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, 2016) and, I have to confess, it caught me of my guard. I had never thought about the enterprise around him. Does it change the way I look at his pictures or how they affect me? No way. But it does make me think of how an author’s success may trigger a less honest modus operandi.

The source of the making, affects it product. In McCurry‘s case, his lack of care and attention ended up allowing photographs such as the above to be seen by millions; in Mapplethorpe‘s case, his hunger for success made him compromise his more subversive attitude, towards the end. He wanted to photograph as much as he could, but the images were becoming ever more sterile, THE THING that the locus of his work was not.

In both cases there’s a team in charge of processing, retouching and printing, but Mapplethorpe would never apologize for his creative freedom and would never allow something to be showed without his approval. After the storm about McCurry’s use of Photoshop hit the fan, people started to search for more Photoshop atrocities in his work and there they were…

As PetaPixel published the story, McCurry finally gave a statement, that goes as follows:

My career started almost forty years ago when I left home to travel and photograph throughout South Asia. I went into Afghanistan with a group of Mujahideen in 1979, and thus became a photojournalist when news magazines and newspapers picked up my pictures, published them around the world, and gave me assignments to provide more images of the war.
Later on, I covered other wars and civil conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, and produced photo essays for magazines, but like other artists, my career has gone through many stages.
Today I would define my work as visual storytelling, because the pictures have been shot in many places, for many reasons, and in many situations. Much of my recent work has been shot for my own enjoyment in places I wanted to visit to satisfy my curiosity about the people and the culture. For example, my Cuba work was taken during four personal trips.
My photography is my art, and it’s gratifying when people enjoy and appreciate it. I have been fortunate to be able to share my work with people around the world.
I try to be as involved as much as I can in reviewing and supervising the printing of my work, but many times the prints are printed and shipped when I am away. That is what happened in this case. It goes without saying that what happened with this image was a mistake for which I have to take responsibility.
I have taken steps to change procedures at my studio which will prevent something like this from happening again.

Although he takes responsibility for this one mistake, he doesn’t explain if the changes in the other images are also mistakes, or if they are intentional. He also states that the lab technician(s) responsible for the mistake has been fired. But how is it possible that his team feels like they have the creative freedom to make such changes without him ever having consent to them? Is that even a possibility?

I’d like to reinforce that my question here has nothing to do with Photoshop retouching. As Jeremy Gray writes, at imaging-resource.comthere is a difference between doing work for photojournalistic purposes, such as for National Geographic, and doing work for personal artistic reasons. A photographer should not be held to the same standard of editing for their personal work as they should be when presenting images for journalistic purposes. Reporting a news story and telling your own tale are not the same thing, and Steve McCurry ought to be allowed to do both, supposing that he in fact is responsible for the removing elements in any of his images.” Unless we’re talking about photojournalism I really don’t care about what image-makers such as McCurry do with saturation and what not. The question is the ethos of a man who acts as if he is the CEO of an enterprise, but then wants people to see him as an artist, a visual storyteller.

Two blocks from my house, a gallery (Barbado), is exhibiting a series of McCurry‘s work on India. Because he was in Portugal for the opening, several newspapers went for an interview with “the guy who shot the afghan girl”. I’m always amazed at the lack of critical awareness in the portuguese media. It’s just astonishing. Because a famous photographer comes to Lisbon to exhibit, no one will dare take a critical look at the photographs?

In the NYT mag, Teju Cole dared a critical approach to McCurry’s work, arguing that his work is full of clichés, his pictures “astonishingly boring”. Cole argues that “the photographs in “India,” all taken in the last 40 years, are popular in part because they evoke an earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like, what the accouterments of their lives should be: umbrellas, looms, sewing machines; not laptops, wireless printers, escalators. […] The men are real, of course, but they have also been chosen for how well they work as types.As Pete Brook, from Prison Photography, states: “in a world replete with images made by folks in every corner of the globe, is there any defense for the space taken up by McCurry?

Mapplethorpe didn’t even know how to process his films, and he was no less of a photographer because of that. He was present everywhere, at all times. He lived for his work. Of course that has consequences, at a more human level, but that’s not the issue here. Mapplethorpe had a vision and he was true to it, even when he got greedier, his photographs follow that greed. The images got sharper, color came into play, the New York star system wanted its share of the pie…

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© Robert Mapplethorpe, Man in Polyester Suit (1980).
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© Robert Mapplethorpe. Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 1/2), 1976.

By the end of Mapplethorpe’s documentary, something grabbed my attention: as we see people preparing for Mapplethorpe’s last exhibition – The Perfect Moment, 1988,  at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia – (which he was unable to attend), curator Janet Kardon states: “I think you can tell whether a show is successful by the sound in the gallery. If people are talking a lot, you know, somehow the show just doesn’t have it. In the Mapplethorpe show, there was silence. You could hear a pin drop.”  

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