Sunday, October 12, 2008

Photo Editing Shopping at the LA Times

As a director/filmmaker I'm keenly attuned to how images appear onscreen and how the framing, lighting and other aspects of an image can inform a viewer's perception of the subject.

There are two images on the front page of the LA Times this morning:

I've posted them in the order they appear on the paper with Obama on top and McCain below (in fact below the fold)- itself a choice that expresses a point of view. Now the article that accompanies them is about how even Republicans are abandoning McCain in this time of economic crisis. There's also a graph that makes Obama's victory look inevitable. But my concern is the pictures. Remember - the LA Times probably has thousands of images to choose from in illustrating a story, so the choice of any two images expresses the opinions of the editors in an incredibly subtle way that even they may not be able to fully understand. Let's take a look.

The top one of Obama makes him look strong - glancing off firmly into the future - the American Flag is bright, strong and crisply in focus behind him. He is lit from above so his chin is solid - ready to take one on the jaw for America (his eyes are in shadow - which if I were lighting it myself I would have fixed, but it doesn't detract from the image). His expression is confident, serene. Slap a cowboy hat on him and a cigarette (not a stretch) and you've got the Marlboro man. There is no ambiguity in this picture. It's the photo of a hero.

Let's take a look at McCain. It's a profile and is lit from below so that he looks old - this is never a flattering point of view and if you were photographing a middle-aged woman (say Barbara Streisand this way, you might have your head lopped off). We can see the sagging skin under his chin and the shadows that play across the rest of his face make him look dramatic and accent his wrinkles. His expression looks slightly - uncertain. We're not sure at all where he's looking or what he's thinking. The America flag behind him is dark and out of focus. This is an ominous picture. But there's something else about this picture that concerns me greatly. What the hell happened to the star field? Aren't the stars on the American flag supposed to be white? In this case they're dark - in fact they appear darker than the blue. Trick of the light, you say? Just the way it's been lit. Then why do the stripes only inches away appear white? It looks to me as if someone has inverted the contrast on the star field. I have photoshop on my other computer so I haven't had time to take a crack at how this might work, but at first glance it looks a little fishy.

Why? Why indeed would someone want to portray the symbol of our country as altered right behind the face of a man running for president - on the front page of a major newspaper no less. Why place him photographically in a situation that appears ominous?