Does high-resolution digital photography call for a new journalistic ethic?

Hillary detail

This is a tough topic for a couple of reasons. First, it ventures into the sensitive area that Donald Trump stomped all over with his gross comments about Carly Fiorina — the area in which women are unfairly judged by their appearance.

Second, I can’t really show you what I’m talking about on a standard-resolution PC. You sort of need the Retina display of a late-model iPad. Since I can’t see what I’m talking about at my end on this machine, I doubt that you can, either. (You can sort of, but not quite, see what I mean if you click on the above image, then click again to enlarge it. But it’s not the same.)

But I thought I’d try to raise it anyway.

Over the weekend, I was scrolling through the stories in the Washington Post app on my iPad, and paused on this story (at least, that’s what includes this photo when I look back — I think originally it was something else) about Hillary Clinton, which featured the above photo full-screen. And my first thought was, “That’s not fair.”

The resolution in this moderate close-up was just ridiculously good. It’s not just that it showed every line in the face of a 67-year-old woman in an unguarded moment, unlit by a smile or any other sort of expression. It’s that I could practically see the grains in her makeup. It was just way, way too up close and personal.

And it occurred to me that, had I been the editor in charge of preparing that story for tablet publication, I would have paused, and thought, “Don’t we have something a little less intrusive?” Not something flattering, necessarily, just something neutral.

Something else occurred to me this morning when I was looking around for a photo of a male candidate where you could see the TV makeup on him with this kind of detail — and it occurred to me that I have not seen a photo like that anywhere. There are closeups, such as the one below of a sweaty Bernie Sanders — but none with obvious makeup, which we all know they sometimes wear. (And I was looking for that because I think it was the fact that I could see all of her makeup in such detail that made it seem so invasive.)

I don’t know where I’m going with this, except that photography as detailed as what we have today with high-end digital cameras — and sometimes just with iPhones — raises new questions of editorial propriety.

The last couple of weekends, I’ve been digitizing some old slides from back in the ’70s, and I’ve been scanning them at a rather ridiculous resolution — 4800 dpi — in order not to lose any detail. And I’ve learned something — there just wasn’t that much detail in 35mm photography, at least not like what I’ve grown accustomed to with even garden-variety digital images.

And occasionally, this extreme increase in detail raises questions about how much is enough, and whether there is such a thing as too much…

Bernie at Benedict

18 thoughts on “Does high-resolution digital photography call for a new journalistic ethic?

  1. Bryan Caskey

    Reading the piece, I think the photo is intended to show Hillary! being tired of the not-important, nothing to see here, distraction, maybe just bad judgment, nothing to apologize for except for the fact that this was so confusing to all you rubes out there issue.

    The piece was a pro-Hillary! piece about how we shouldn’t focus on the e-mail story or the fact that the FBI is investigating her. I think they wanted to show Hillary! looking tired.

    But to your larger question? Eh, I don’t know.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, you haven’t had to make calls such as this for a newspaper. I have — but way back when I was in the news department and therefore concerned with such things (before I moved to editorial at the start of 1994), we didn’t have to think about photos that allowed you to count the pores on a newsmaker’s nose…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Some time back, I remember some Hollywood actresses (of a certain age) complaining about this same issue.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Good ol’ reliable Tri-X just didn’t give you that kind of resolution.

        Something I’ve discovered scanning those slides is that I wasn’t a very good photographer back in the day, despite all that training in J school. A startling number of the slides are out of focus — they’ll look OK at 35mm on a light table, but as soon as you enlarge them at all, they’re way fuzzy.

        I had no idea that the autofocus I’ve been using for 20 years or so made such a difference. I would have ventured that my manual focus pictures were BETTER than the auto. Not so, not by a long shot.

        Of course, part of it is that even though I would shoot a lot of exposures with Tri-X, I was way more choosy about what I shot with expensive color slide film. I’d shoot one exposure where I would shoot 10 or more in digital. Also, every single exposure, regardless of quality, got developed and put in the little slide frame and ended up in the carousel slide tray. I mean, I’d paid for it; I wasn’t going to toss it. My skills would look better if I were only looking at the best couple of images from a roll.

        Anyway, by and large, the images I get with my iPhone tend to be way better than what I took with my old Yashica SLR I used in those days…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    I was a tad hesitant to mention this after reading about the guy who got lambasted for saying a new LinkedIn connection’s profile picture was “stunning.” I suppose you’d say that was at the opposite end of the unacceptability spectrum from the Trump-Fiorina thing…

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Your link is broken. You’re going to have to submit a photograph into evidence if you want a ruling on whether she’s “stunning”, counselor.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      This blog has no opinion on the stunningness of the young barrister — although I think I’ve fixed the link.

      I will offer this technical observation: It appears to me that the young woman, or someone, actually sharpened her image in Photoshop (that is to say, imposed an effect that is the opposite of soft-focus). I say that because of some telltale distortions in her hair as well as on her skin. I’m not sure why — it looks like a professional studio shot, and it should have been sharp enough originally. It’s something you would normally only do with a substandard photo, or when you’re crying to crop a mug shot out of a group picture. But that’s what it looks like…

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    The shock–a woman who looks her age, rather than like a plastic blow-up doll facsimile! How can we allow this?
    I like that I can see wrinkles and acne scars on actrons. I grew up with the heavily airbrushed fashion magazine ideal, and was already growed up before I realized that even Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley didn’t actually look like that. I would like it if modern male actors shaved more closely/frequently, but I guess it beats neck tattoos.
    It’s not a beauty contest.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Not a beauty contest? When was the last really ugly president we had? LBJ, maybe Nixon? And Nixon hadn’t had a chance against the photogenic JFK; he had to be up against Humphrey and Wallace to win.

      It doesn’t hurt Hillary a bit that she’s got an engaging smile — although she’d be shown up on that score by Joe Biden. On looks, poor ol’ Bernie doesn’t stand a chance.

      I wonder if Abe Lincoln could get elected today?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Or for that matter the 5-foot-4 James Madison?

        Height has probably been a better predictor than handsomeness. And at least Abe had that going for him…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I was surprised to learn that Trump was 6’3″. I would have guessed he was shorter than I am. Funny the assumptions you make about people. Since I think of him as a troll, I figure…

          I’m in the Huckabee-Christie-Carson range, maybe a fraction of an inch taller…

    2. Juan Caruso

      “The shock–a woman who looks her age, rather than like a plastic blow-up doll facsimile! How can we allow this?”

      Thers is an excellent method to reduce such “shock”, and the Washington Post has barely taken its first step with publication of the photo upon which Brad casts his personal / editorial rebuke.

      Firstly, it is a candid photo that actually shows sleepless fatiuge (does anyone wonder why?) and inadequate makeup rather than “every line in the face of a 67-year-old woman in an unguarded moment, unlit by a smile or any other sort of expression.”

      Secondly, there are far too many less flattering candids of Hillary that have appeared online to be concerned with a sudden hag factor. Prove it to yourself; Google “hillary clinton bad hair day”.

      Finally, shock requires an element of surprise. If Hillary’s potential caderie of female supporters has miraculously overlooked her repetitive botox cures (week-long absences from interviews) , why should they now care?

      One recalls Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, at one point, comprised of men and women equally lacking in height and leadership stature. Which were judged most successful — the men or the women? The notion of fair judgement by appearance is merely another devisive tactic of the left, a legal artifice without substance. Like canines, men (Donald Trump, for instance) and women must both be up to thejob rather than Hollywood’s superficial appearance standards.

      HRC’s potential male voters are more concerned about perpetuating the liberal myth (largely invented by trial lawyers, journalists, paid political consultants, unfaithful husbands — Bill Clinton, etc) that everyday “women are unfairly judged by their appearance.” I submit, if Bill Clinton’s infidelity was excused by voters into his second term, then voters are certainly able to forgive HRC’s hag factor before her unlikely first.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        It doesn’t take a week to get Botox, and her face doesn’t seem to have that preternatural smoothness of the Botoxed or Juvedermed. Her jawline with its jowls suggests that no facelift has occurred.
        She is actually wearing probably too much makeup–for video—foundation can highlight wrinkles rather than conceal them.
        I suspect Hillary is a smoker, from the wrinkles and the husky quality of her voice. I bet she did not use regular sunscreen in her youth.
        and “age” shows up faster on women than men, in large part due to differences in skin thickness.

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