Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Caveat Emptor

Levine demonstrates the power of humility with his self-portrait.
(Courtesy of entry on caricature)

“I love my species,” gushed caricaturist David Levine in
David Margolick’s November Vanity Fair profile. Famed for their “lapidary precision and devastating eloquence,” Levine’s portraits have been a mainstay on the pages of The New York Review of Books and in the minds of its liberal intelligentsia readers for decades. Now 82 years old, he finds his sight waning and his editors find his hand, and wit, wavering.

Margolick’s story raises lot of questions, but is quick to point out the role of Levine’s strong voice in the accuracy his work.

In a 1968
Times review of a Levine show, Hilton Kramer writes” “[Levine] has restored this marvelous but neglected genre..and thus reminded us that the draftsman’s pen, no less than the writer’s, may sometimes be an effective and highly amusing instrument of critical discourse.” I assume Levine was flattered, believing that “If I can’t do it the way Charlie Chaplin did it, words are not going to help.”

After reading the article that would accompany his drawing, Levine set out with to capture his subjects with honesty and relevance. Effective in capturing the zeitgeist, his intentions extended farther: “by making the powerful funny looking, he theorized, he might encourage some humility or self-awareness.” Accurate and shrewd, where photographs could simply conjure, Levine’s renderings could embed themselves within the cultural conscious. All expectations thrown aside, the strength of his caricatures result from a joint effort between his eye, hand, heart and mind.

Levine’s work throws a strong, and unforgettable punch in the writing, er, drawing, of history, but is it good journalism?

Ethics of conduct sit high in the journalist world. Such codes, however, are usually considered stifling to artists. But it seems that the visual is inherent in our understanding of reality, and inextricably tied to journalism. After all, a flashy portrait by
Schoeller, Leibovitz, Avedon or Platon is as likely to sell a magazine as it is a subject, story or bias.

On the Media took a closer look at the relationship between art, journalism and ethics last week on its show “Snap Judgments.” Talking with journalists and photographers, they took on the rules (or lack there of) that govern journalistic portraiture, specifically the photographic.

It shouldn’t take an art critic to understand the implications of photography’s wide-angle lenses, obtuse angles, nonstandard lighting and digital retouching while posturing seems somewhat inherent in portraiture. These “tricks” are, more or less, to the photographer what a pen and ink are to Levine.

Portrait Photographer Jill “Manipulator” Greenberg caused waves when she employed a few of these “tricks” while shooting John McCain for the September cover of The Atlantic. Using a strobe, she caught shadows and bloodshot eyes--not quite image of a heroic presidential candidate the magazine had hoped for, but the ghastly candidate she so openly despised.

"You know," she told NPR, "especially when this election was so crucial to me and my family, I just felt, you know, maybe coloring outside the lines this one time wouldn't be such a big deal."

I tend to think Levine would not disagree.  Levine was famed for his ability to pen images that captured precisely what he saw in his subject. At times harsh, they resonated. But the uproar over Greenberg's portrait led Bob Garfield to beg the question: "Where is the distinction between artistic prerogative and photo 'gotcha'?" What happens to ethics when art and journalism collide? Does manipulation lend meaning to an image, or pin it down? Can it lend truth, bringing an image closer to reality? Or does it simply distort it?

History is a reenactment of past experience in the mind, writes
R.G. Collingwood.  Errol Morris, a documentarian famed for his use of reenactments, echoes this idea to the CJR, believing that "reenactments are designed to facilitate that process of going back there in the mind." Designed to take the audience into the scene, the reenactments are not literal, but rather, "often they show certain details that you want to think about." I like to think that this is what portraiture is about: not a literal transcription of what is, but a timeless translation. And maybe, if this takes a slightly heavier hand, so be it.

A Morris reenactment of the infamous Abu Gharib photo.
(courtesy of

Mediated by an artist’s pen and paper, and often with the label “cartoon,” portraits like Levine’s are often written off. When it comes to photography, it seems people believe the lens provides an unmediated truth.  Neither should be ignored.

For exactly this reason, I think Morris was right in supposing that "photographs served as a cover-up as well as an expose" in the presses coverage of past events. Their verisimilitude captures a believed reality, and it is easy to forget how this moment came to be. To some degree, every photograph, be it by a photojournalist or artist, is carefully framed and focused. 

"Usually visuals are designed to stop us from thinking, not to encourage us to think," Morris says, "I'm very fond of pointing out to people that reality is reenacted inside our skulls routinely. That's how we know about the world. We walk around in the world; the world isn't walking around in us." So while it is true that photographs can at times be
reductive, the power images hold to open doors should not be forgotten. If the media is presenting us with a map of this reality, journalists being our guides, can we blame them for using every tool at their disposal to add depth and clarity? Punchy portraits, like Levine's, leave the mind on fire, whereas innocuous snap shots (if such thing is even possible) can dead end a moment, so why not lend a little editorial license?  This might lend more responsibility to the consumer, but shouldn't we be doing that anyways?  Maybe "good journalism" is in the hands of "good readers."  With a little good faith, prerogative can lead to an interesting photo, and, to every mogul's delight, a little extra pocket cash.  

No comments: