In the first of an irregular series of posts, Paris based photojournalist Martin Middlebrook speaks out about the moral decisions that have to be made when it comes to post-production and selling images.
I have a terrible admission to make. Yesterday I spent an hour Googling ‘Lightroom Presets’ – I feel ashamed, more than ashamed. My French girlfriend is forever emailing me links to ‘great’ photography – ‘Pourquoi tu ne prends pas des photos comme celle ci mon amour, tout le monde fait cela en ce moment?’ Well the answer is that the image you are presently looking at is… a cheat. Well not a cheat perhaps, but it certainly didn’t look like that when it was taken.
Ask yourself this I said have you ever walked out of your front door and seen the world like that? Photographs used to look like the world outside, now we imagine the world outside through photographs – but they’re not the same thing. I was rifling through old folders, looking at RAW’s in Lightbox, a tweak here or there, a little clarity, perhaps some more black, sharpen, export!
And then as though I am a Lightroom novice squeaky clean out of the box I discovered all these presets. I pressed a few buttons… and my pictures looked like the ‘NEW WORLD’. Emboldened I found a good couple of hundred presets online and for a meagre outlay, they would elevate my average stock to nothing short of National Geographic levels – this is it I thought, I’ve hit the jackpot! Except that I didn’t purchase any because I am presently auctioning body parts to buy a Parisian coffee, and because, well I couldn’t.
Last year I was approached by an intermediary for Canon, asking to licence one of my images for what was a king’s ransom. They could see from the metadata that it was shot on a Canon body, so could I just confirm the Canon lens I had used? Yes I bloody well could I answered in a thrice, it was shot using a Tamron lens and I’m not even going to try to lie to you. A friend said there was freely available software that would allow me to strip the metadata and add whatever I wished, but instead I explained to Canon that as much as I needed a return on all of the investment I had made in them over too many years, they could keep their Yen!
Two months ago they repeated the request as though the left hand hadn’t been in touch with the right one for a bit, and I was as polite and honest as ever, but what I really wanted to say was… stop dangling this big carrot in front of me when I have just used my kids as collateral against a necessary repair I just had to make to my/your 24-105 lens. Enough!
So I have a question for myself, and I am not sure if it’s rhetorical, or even a question. Do I buy the presets and enter this brave new world, or do I suffer the consequences and die an honourable death?
Last week I had dinner with Eric Baradat, Chief Picture Editor of AFP, and we whiled away an hour or two challenging this very subject, loosening a few corks along the way. What is acceptable, how far can you go, what does toning actually mean? If you want to be successful in photojournalism do you have to have ‘the current style’?
As a hangover curative I took a bunch of images that have resided in a financial black hole on various hard disks and desaturated them and vignetted them and showed mostly the backs of people’s heads.
My girlfriend asked me yesterday, “If the new look is the old film look but created digitally, and you won’t do that, why don’t you just shoot film?” to which I answered I couldn’t afford it.
Or perhaps I just couldn’t anymore. Because in another moment of unnerving perspective, where once I held this belief that I had skills that mattered, that perhaps I had even begun to master, right now, as I write these words, I can’t believe in those skills anymore – my confidence has sunk like my checking account. The image that Canon wished to remunerate me so handsomely for is, I am embarrassed to say… a frog. It was taken in my back garden many years ago in the days when I still viewed photography as a kind of hobby that people paid me for – when I still loved it.
But can I honestly say that now? If Magnum did pick up the phone, or indeed if anyone picked up the phone, I would buff my lenses in a moment and set to it, because nothing on the planet makes me happier than shooting. But the bullshit rest, well I can’t be doing with it, not right now. Not anymore.
Everyone goes through this, well most of us I would think. I have broken many things to get this far, and this far is not very far on reflection, though perhaps further than I could have imagined when I photographed that frog. But I think the frog must be a metaphor, one about big frogs in small ponds and otherwise. It’s dirty out there and I have lost the heart for what it means to survive. The real frog will be dead by now of course, but it still lives on as zeros and ones and I can still remember the precise moment I took it, the way the sun briefly warmed my shoulders and how it stood stock still just long enough before it hopped off into the sunset. Yep it’s a metaphor alright.
I haven’t touched my cameras for a while, but I am tempted to crack one open now, change the tone and saturation settings and buy some cheap old lenses and see if I’m any good. Perhaps I would rediscover my love again, and shoot to suit. But maybe I’ll just buy some presets instead, that would be quicker, and cheaper, and like the Tamron lens, not even Canon would know.
STOP PRESS: Those Canon intermediaries have just emailed me notifying me of a new and may I say almost thrilling requirement ‘We need creative images of the Louvre – please check out the brief on our website’. So like an unthinking squaddie I did just that keen to feather my capacious pockets with 500 bucks. Very kindly, their instructive brief came with a sample image they would like me to emulate. The sample image was umm! Mine! Complete with copyright notice. They know me, they clearly know my image it seems, and I suppose they know their own terms and conditions, but all the same, why the fuck didn’t they just buy mine. Why the fuck indeed!
© Martin Middlebrook 2015