Sunday, November 09, 2008

Which version of the same photograph of Sarah Palin in the NYT is more 'real'? Why?

The New York Times published this Al Grillo/Associated Press photo in color on the web Friday and it appeared in Saturday's print edition in B&W. The photo illustrated the NYT's story headlined Palin Calls Criticism by McCain Aides ‘Cruel and Mean-Spirited.’ I thought it raised some interesting questions about how photographs set the stage for the articles they illustrate, and specifically about the difference in the way color and B&W can "frame" a story.

The color photo of Palin in her office after her "welcome back" party seems the much more sympathetic of the two, because the scene seems so cheerful. The colors are light and pastel and almost innocently childlike. The color palette is joyful. Even political opponents almost can't help being somewhat sympathetic toward Palin as a person, cutting her a bit of slack. Some might be inclined to think, "Who knows, maybe she's right. maybe they did treat her badly," when Palin fires back at the McCain aides who leaked to the press about her.
Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska fired back Friday at the unnamed McCain campaign aides who have been maligning her in recent days, saying that their criticism was “cruel and it’s mean-spirited, it’s immature, it’s unprofessional, and those guys are jerks.”
In contrast, the B&W picture reads very differently. There's nothing joyous in it. It's a classic morning-after picture of a loser, standing alone among the colorless debris of dashed hopes and a failed campaign. And so it's easy to read Palin's remarks differently, too. They come off as sour grapes, the bitter reflections of a loser unwilling to acknowledge responsibility and blaming her former colleagues.

I'm not sure the NYT meant anything in particular by the different choices of color and B&W here. Probably it was just a reflection of the different ways they use photos on the web (where color is essentially free) and in print (where color always costs more, often substantially more). But the examples are a reminder of how color and B&W versions of the same subject often project a different feeling -- and that these differences can be used to color the words that accompany them.

And I'm not saying the Times did anything wrong, or that they somehow distorted the B&W version to make a point. The NYT B&W version of the photo was a neutral, grayscale conversion in which the color information in the file is simply discarded. This is arguably the most neutral, "accurate" method, but it is also the method least favored by serious photographers, because it tends to produce visually boring photos with a limited tonal range -- and, indeed, the image in the NYT print edition was rather flat. There are other ways to do it.

For example, here's my completely different rendition, which I think of as "The Death of Hope." Now Sarah Palin is surrounded by black balloons. The balloon as memento mori that people love to inflict on coworkers who've turned 40. Even as a joke, it has an edge to it -- an indirect reference to the end of youthful dreams, or worse, being one step closer to the Big Sleep. I used Photoshop settings equivalent to heavy red filtration on a film camera. I like to think of it as representing the total failure of the religious right in this election.

In the old days, photographers made decisions about the kind of film they used, or sometimes, their selection of filters, and darkroom processing that determined what their B&W images would look like. Today the decisions are made in digital post processing, and unless a straight grayscale conversion is used, it's up to the photographer (or whoever processes the file) to decide which colors come out as the darker and lighter shades of gray in a B&W photo.

Which image is the most accurate representation of the scene in Governor Palin's office? There's no one answer. It depends on what the photographer intended -- and what the viewer sees in it. I, for partly political reasons and partly esthetic ones, prefer my version.

1 comment:

Donna said...

I really enjoy your blog and especially enjoyed today's commentary about the color vs b&w Palin photo. I learn things here and find new ways of seeing my surroundings. Thank you.