Saturday, January 27, 2007

NYT take note: Photoshop lies aren't the only kind of photographic distortion

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets make a lot out of the fact that they don't allow their photographers to fiddle with their pictures in Photoshop. What you see is what you get, supposedly.

That's why I was so startled last night when I saw the photo the New York Times ran in their online story about Serena Williams winning the Australian Open (not in print, must have been too late for the deadline). WTF? That lady hasn't just put on pounds, she's been putting away the steroids. Look at that upper right arm. A linebacker would be proud.

Then I looked more closely. Look at the tennis ball. It's a double exposure. There are two images of the ball, blurring together. The same thing is happening with Serena's right arm. Two exposures, perhaps a 1/000 of a second apart. In the first, her arm is pressed against her torso, as she draws back for a two-fisted backhand. In the second, it's flared out and away as she begins her stroke.

The photo could be the result of two different photographers' strobes happening to go off a millisecond or so apart, but I don't know that they allow flash during an indoor tennis match. If not, it would seem to be an artifact of the shutter somehow taking two exposures a fraction of a second apart. Everything in the picture that is more or less at rest during that brief interval is fused into a single image. The picture elements that are in rapid motion appear as two separate but merged images: her upper right arm, the ball, and to some extent, the head of the racket. So, although I'm sure the file integrity of the digital image was totally preserved, without Photoshop hankypank, the final result is as distorted as if the photographer had deliberately stretched the upper arm horizontally in Photoshop.

I'm left wondering why this happened. In all likelihood, the image was selected by an art director for its graphic impact. And it certainly does create a powerful image of raw power, of the sheer physical strength needed for today's power game (even though some of that power comes from modern racket technology).

But what about Serena Williams, the subject of the story, the former champion capping an incredible comeback as an unseeded player in the Australian Open by humiliating Maria Sharapova in the final? Her achievement wasn't primarily a physical feat. Like all great victories against the odds at this level of professional sports, it was primarily mental.

The real distortion here isn't just photographic. By representing Serena Williams, a great athlete, as having the physique of a hulking bodybuilder, the Times is perpetuating an old stereotype of black athletes, one the Williams sisters have been battling for years in the mostly white world of pro tennis. Just what sort of stereotype are we playing with here? Think Jimmy the Greek expounding on the unique musculature of black athletes. This comes close to being a visual equivalent.

Can anyone imagine the Times having run the same sort of photo showing Maria Sharapova? Wouldn't they have gone for a look of physical grace more than brute, animal strength?

1 comment:

ntodd said...

Uh...when you're smacking the ball 100mph, your tris are gonna float out like that. There's really nothing nefarious here. It's a striking, beautiful photo.