Failing to Harness the Web’s Visual Promise
Fred Ritchin
Fred Ritchin’s book “After Photography” is a rich stew of memoir, history (remember the darkened image of O.J. Simpson on the cover of Time magazine?), and philosophical discussions. Ritchin is a professor, an entrepreneur, and a provocateur. He likes to engage in debate, raise questions, and question business as usual: Does the rise of digital photography mean there is no reason to believe photographs anymore? Are photographers encouraged to deliver images that illustrate the preconceptions of their editors and is publication withheld if they do not? (His answer to that last one is “yes.”)

Ritchin got an early taste of the ethical issues that arise in the business of photography when, as a young man, he worked as a picture researcher for Time-Life Books. One photo essay he worked on, of a young couple having their first child, was ready to go to press when word came back that the man had left his wife because he was jealous of the attention his new son was soaking up. “So the staff simply rewrote the accompanying texts (it was too late to change the photographic layout), showing how the very same photographs now indicated the inevitability of the breakup,” Ritchin writes, adding, “Not long after, I terminated my own fledgling career as a photographer, in large part because I did not want to provide imagery for others to misuse.”

Picture editing, to Ritchin’s way of thinking, is an underappreciated skill. “There are very few courses worldwide in which one can learn picture editing. It seems so obvious that many believe anyone can do it,” he writes. “Yet the choices reverberate, reinforcing stereotypes, opening up or closing discussions, accusing, or justifying a variety of attitudes.”

Near the end of this wide-ranging book, Ritchin calls on the next generation: “Students in schools worldwide should not only be asked how media work, but also asked how they should work.’’ The challenge, as Peter Plagens put it in an article titled “Is Photography Dead?” that appeared in Newsweek at the end of 2007, remains. Ritchin quotes Plagens: “The next great photographers—if there are to be any—will have to find a way to reclaim photography’s special link to reality. And they’ll have to do it in a brand-new way.”

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