Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Defending Steve McCurry (And Photoshop)

If you've been following the latest news in the photography world, then you've seen that legendary photographer Steve McCurry has come under attack lately. And I think that it's been completely unfair.

In case you live under a rock and have no idea who Steve McCurry is, well, he's best known for his longtime work at National Geographic. His photographs have graced the pages and covers of that magazine for decades. His photo Afghan Girl was featured on the June 1985 issue and stands as his most recognizable photograph. He's also had books published of his work and is one of the most well-known photographers ever.
Red Chairs - Cambria, California
Does anyone really care that this image was edited with software?
The controversy started a few weeks ago when someone looked closely at some of his prints in a gallery and noticed some anomalies that clearly indicated that the photographs had been edited in Photoshop. Then some other people noticed some other photographs of his had received some significant editing in software.

That's the controversy. It doesn't seem like a big deal to me, but (for whatever reason) it outraged a bunch of people. Steve McCurry uses Photoshop (I know, crazy, right?).

Why this is not a big deal is that everyone (who shoots digitally) uses Photoshop or some other photo editing software. You can't escape it. Even those who claim "straight out of the camera" are relying on the photo editing software built into their gear. Every digital image is in some way manipulated with software. Everybody is guilty. No one should be casting stones at Steve. Those who are attacking him are incredibly hypocritical.

Even if you shoot film you make development and printing choices that manipulate the picture to some degree. A picture that has not been manipulated is not a picture at all, but (at best) undeveloped film. Editing pictures is a (big) part of the photographic process. It can't be escaped, whether digital or film.

Besides, it's Steve's art, and he gets final say. Who are you to judge what is "too much" post-processing? It's not your picture. It's not your art. Who gave these critics authority to decide what's right and what's wrong? Nobody. They're just being jerks.

Unfortunately, Steve McCurry didn't stand his ground. He said that he'd rein in his use of Photoshop moving forward. I don't think that was the right response, but, perhaps, it will quiet the critics.

It doesn't bother me one bit that Steve or anyone else uses Photoshop. Everyone post-processes their images, some more than others. And there are certainly photographers who go way beyond anything that Steve has even imagined doing with software (but apparently it's ok for them to do it, as long as it's not Steve, for some reason).

What matters is the image, and whether it speaks to people or not. Nobody really cares how the image was created. Nobody cares what gear was used or software. So, please, give it a rest. Let Steve McCurry get back to making exceptional images--the images that have made him famous for many, many years.


  1. Quite an interesting post! Thanks for sharing this post here. I am going to learn professional photography from my cousin who is a reputed Port Macquarie Photographer. He will teach me event, street and aerial photography. Excited to work with him!

  2. I think making a distinction between documentary/photojournalistic work and artistic work is important. Art Wolfe for example is open about using photoshop to 'fix' images to match his vision - but he is openly presenting his work as art. Steve McCurry on the other hand is known as a documentary/photojournalist, which to me implies that he shot it as he saw it. Editing White Balance, Color, Sharpness etc to match images to what one 'sees' is fine IMHO. However, cloning in or out parts of the image (i.e. adding or removing something that was not what they saw at the time of the exposure), is an issue with a photojournalist, in my opinion. So, i guess it would depend on what type of editing was done to his images.