CUTTING ALONE WON’T CUT IT
The published take of Steve McCurry’s immortal “Afghan Girl” and the frame that was nearly chosen in its stead.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ENDLESS DEBATE ABOUT WHETHER GOOD PICTURES ARE “BORN” OR “MADE” shows no sign of abating anytime in the next foreseeable millennium. In fact, it’s kinda fun bickering endlessly about whether success stems from the concept of an image (nature) or the loving care afforded by processing and editing (nurture). It’s the kind of infinite chicken-or-the-egg loop that enlivens all the better cocktail parties. I myself have fought fearlessly on both sides of the aisle at different points in my life, but my latest thoughts on the subject are becoming a bit more nuanced.
While I marvel at the astounding raft of choices born from the use of various post-processing platforms, I reserve the specific word editing for the mental judgement, the trained eye that can not only distinguish good pictures from bad, but great pictures from good ones. Sadly, all too often, our emphasis is on how we can improve or “fix” a picture with processing, trying to salvage shortcomings that should have been weeded out by the conscious, deliberate act of editing.
Recent articles on NatGeo’s Steve McCurry’s iconic “Afghan Girl” portrait (the Face That Launched A Thousand Camera Purchases, not to mention selling a crap-ton of Kodachrome) have centered on one of the alternate frames taken at the time that lost out to the final image. Both pictures, as you can see, are marvelous in distinct ways, and so it took McNally’s discerning and experienced eye to separate the gold from the platinum and select the photo that was not merely poignant, but, in a way, transformative, the final visual word on a tough subject. It’s not the kind of decision that can be made by merely boosting the color, cropping, or filtering the shot through a dozen afterthought layers, even though such operations can place the cherry on top of an already strong photograph. It’s the ability to criticize and evaluate one’s own work, fearlessly and in depth, which must exist in the photographer’s mind.
The best pictures are always improved by tools, but they can never be about those tools. In the interest of humility, I keep entire folders of near-misses, images I could not, even with infinite fiddling, rehabilitate. In case after case, I used post-processing to complete the task of story-telling that I only partly achieved in the making of the master shot. Not quite lipstick on a pig, but clearly the work of someone who is covering his tracks. To have a “McNally Eye” takes total honesty, a skill which is harder to master than all the technical know-how in the world. A great job of tweaking can never compensate for a bad job of narration. It’s the different between a girl with a plaintive look in her eyes and a girl with a stare than can sear its way into your soul.