A Black and White Comparison: What Does Retouching Tell Us About Photojournalism?

A Black and White Comparison: What Does Retouching Tell Us About Photojournalism?

This week, TIME magazine published James Nachtwey’s photo essay on the opioid crisis. Over his decades-long career, Nachtwey has carved out a reputation as a stoic and relentless documentarian of conflict and pain. His latest effort took over a year to produce, and it has all the hallmarks of great photojournalism, providing a level of intimacy and rawness that can only be captured with persistence and skill.

But one of the more noticeable aspects for me was the style of retouching. There was nothing outstanding about it, and by that, I don’t mean that the retouching wasn’t good – it just didn’t overwhelm. The retouching was subservient to the content of the photos.

Photo by James Nachtwey for TIME

Here’s Nachtwey’s image of two women shooting up on the streets of San Francisco. The skin tonality of the main subject is fairly subdued. There’s probably some dodging of the face, but comparing the tonality of her face to her hand, we know that it’s subtle. We can see that she is pushing a syringe into her neck, but the white of the plunger isn’t blown out. There is detail sharpness in the concrete pavers and the wall behind her. The histogram is pushed to the left, but the image still retains a lot of shadow detail.

The histogram from the above image.

We see her belongings strewn about. We see the shadows of other figures around her. There framing of the photo and the moment captures provides the viewer with a ton of information. It’s a powerful photo.

As a point of comparison, here is a photo from Kevin Frayer’s amazing essay on the Rohingya exodus due to genocide that was also published in TIME last year.

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The faces carry remarkable expressions. The sense of exhaustion in the woman is palpable. But the sharpness of the water droplets from her hand and the tonality of the wooden siding of the boat seem hyperreal. They have almost a rendered, movie-like quality to them.

The point of the comparison is not to impugn Frayer’s photography (and his images are merely representative of many similarly toned images from different photographers). His photos are unquestionably powerful and exhibit tremendous skill and dedication to telling an important story under miserable conditions. But more than a few photographers I know had a reaction along the lines of “great photos, but what’s up with the retouching?”


Do Frayer’s images pop? Yes, they do – especially when compared to Nachtwey’s. But does the retouching style support or detract from the content of the photos? And more importantly, does it matter? I would suggest that if any material percentage of the public believes that the scene has been staged, then insofar as photojournalism is concerned, there is a problem. But in today’s world where punchy Instagram-style images have influenced a news-weary public’s perception of photography, perhaps the discussion is moot. 

Nachtwey’s photography suggests that contemporary toning techniques are not required to be considered a top-flight photo, but is he anachronism? The last of a dying breed? Only TIME will tell.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 14 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: A Black and White Comparison: What Does Retouching Tell Us About Photojournalism? – PhotoShelter Blog – The Click
  2. Tobias at 3:24 am

    Yup it’s a problem! Natchweys image is posed, that’s fine. The second one is horrible and I see more and more like this. Over processed and the effect is a flattening without any depth to it. The shutter speed is also too fast causing this unreal appearance, it looks staged but isn’t.

    • imajez at 7:26 pm

      “The shutter speed is also too fast causing this unreal appearance, ”
      That’s one of the daftest claims I’ve heard yet about a news photo.
      Faster shutter speeds do not decrease verité, unsharp images most certainly can do.

    • Matt Mendelsohn at 9:35 am

      Out of curiosity, why would you say that Nachtwey’s image is “posed”? Do you know that or are you making an assumption?

  3. Patrick at 12:44 pm

    From the time photojournalism began the images have been retouched. The were dodged and burned and bleached and cropped and on and on. The only difference with black and white today is it is easier to retouch.
    The photographers have a story they want to tell and sometimes it is heavy handed. I still look at them and that is the bottom line.

  4. JR at 12:47 pm

    I would suggest “processing” is a better word than “retouching” — certainly altering tone or contrast, or dodging and burning would not have been called “retouching” in traditional darkroom photography.

    “Retouching” was about altering content — painting out pimples, or removing a tree growing out of someone’s head.

  5. dfp77 at 11:43 am

    I agree that Nachtwey’s image looks fine and Frayer’s image is over-done. I think that photojournalistic images should look real, not over-stylized or similar to a painting. Being a portrait photographer I might be over-sensitized to images that are over- processed because I now have an eye for this. In general, I now think most portraits are over done to the point where the people look like mannequins and the images look like HDR images. But post processing is a very personal thing and one of the most important aspects of the art in photography.

  6. Mike at 1:40 pm

    I prefer Nachtwey’s approach. That is not to say the second image isn’t powerful, it is, the composition and moment captured is brilliant, but the styling makes it seem unreal, the opposite to what photojournalism is meant to depict, reality. I don’t blame the photographer tbh, I admit I too have experimented with such processing. I think it has a lot to do with trends, photographers see others getting published/receiving awards for similar looking images and follow suit. But at the end of the day, the best photographs, at least for me, are the ones where the content and storytelling is king, without the need to over manipulate.

  7. imajez at 7:23 pm

    I find all this complaining about a particular style of B+W looking ‘unreal’ or other such carping a bit ludicrous. It’s B+W and there is nothing at all ‘real’ about B+W because we see in colour and not B+W. Imagine if colour film had been invented at the outset of photography and B+W was a recent idea, people would be complaining about fake looking B+W in the same way they do about HDR. Probably even more vociferously. The fact that a modern style of B+W photography looks different from an older style of B+W is pretty irrelevant seeing neither are anything like reality. You are simply acclimatised to the ‘old fashioned’ look. No more.
    I find it even more absurd when folk complain about colour shots having saturation altered a small amount in photojournlism, but are perfectly accepting of B+W where the saturation alteration is as far from neutral as it can go. Colours in real life can be naturally be very muted or very highly saturated depending on lighting/light levels, but they are never B+W.

    There is also in one sense no such thing as overprocessed because it is an entirely subjective concept. Overprocessed is a term people often lazily use to describe a style they do not like.
    Why not simply say it’s not to your taste rather than claim objectivity about an entirely subjective concept?

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 7:49 pm

      I never claimed there was an objective way to tone an image. There is a threshold at which people will say an image looks fake (and that threshold varies depending on the viewer), and insofar as photojournalism is concerned this is a problem because it undermines the credibility of news at a time when multiple world leaders use “fake news” to rail against information they find offensive. You might have no problem with a specific image like Frayer’s but that misses the point of my argument.

      • imajez at 9:36 pm

        Not missing the point at all because I’m arguing there is no point. I’m talking about how BOTH images are completely ‘fake looking’, albeit in different ways. This negates the crux of your argument. You are simply more accepting of one because of tradition/what you are used to/personal taste, not because of any objective reasoning. I’m making no claim about either picture’s veracity over the other or their artistic merits. I’m simply commenting on the falsehood that B+W images are representative of reality and the cognitive dissonance of people accepting B+W images, but not colour ones that are far less ‘processed’ or altered from reality
        I’ve also seen Natchwey images that are more like the image you are less keen on that the one you selected.

  8. erik kellar at 10:27 am

    Man this goes to show you most people have never worked in darkroom. High Contrast papers and films plus dodging and burning have always been standard practice in photo journalism darkrooms. Its mean to compensate for the film and papers lack of ability to communicate. This comparison demonstrates the lack of reference of history.

  9. Swift at 6:11 am

    Retouching is the wrong word to use. Anyone caught retouching in the newspaper I work for would probably be fired.
    I think you’d need to see the original files to really judge if he’s gone too far. He’s shot it in very hard light compared to the first image so it’s going to be very contrast and sharp anyway.

  10. RSP at 12:17 pm

    WOW, such strong opinions. I think everyone has offered some very good objectivity on these two photos. If you like one over the other for any particular reason then good for you. It’s all subjective anyway. There are those who cling to the classic look of B/W from the good old days and there are others who enjoy the new look that is obtainable using your computers. I like both styles for various reasons. I like the traditional look of B/W when it’s done properly darkroom or computer. In this case it doesn’t really matter one bit. I also enjoy a good B/W when it has a bit of an edge like the second photo in this case. I would also add that this style makes for a better advertising piece or a piece of wall art. In its purest form B/W is a tool no different than anything else a photographer may poses. It can convey a more visceral sense when an image is void of reasonable color elements but it can also create a more intimate connection for a viewer. Color on the other hand can do all of the above because this is how we see reality however, color should not be overplayed. Most colors in the real world can be rich and subdued at the same time but seldom do they explode off the print/page like I see way to often. There is a balance between light and dark tones even with the richest of colors. If you want to be real about things then this is where to place a heavy hand on the color saturation. Also texture. THis is highly overdone for the most part in either medium. But that’s my opinion.

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