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|| News Item: Posted 2005-03-05

Martha Never Looked Better
By Matthew Mendelsohn

Photo by

Photo illustration by Michael Elins. Head shot by Marc Bryan-Brown.
(Author's note: I was asked by Sports Shooter to expound on a letter I wrote this afternoon to the Poynter web site regarding this week's cover fabrication of Martha Stewart by Newsweek. Here goes...)

For years, when I would try and explain what made photojournalism great to my friends who were, it seemed, all lawyers I would always go back to The List. The List went something like this:

Bobby Kennedy lying in the arms of a busboy.

A burned, half-naked girl runs screaming down a road.

A young woman wails over the body of a dead Kent State student.

A Gulf war soldier sobs in an open helicopter, the body bag of a friend next to him.

The List goes on and on. We all have our own lists. The point in reciting it to my non-photographer friends was always to illustrate the power that great photojournalism holds over us. We don't even need to see the images in front of us to see them in our mind's eye. (Nikon even crafted an ad campaign around this notion years ago.)

Great photojournalism continues. Just open this month's American Photo to see some incredible images by David Leeson and Tyler Hicks. The Great Shift of the last decade, from film to digital, has done little to lessen photojournalism's power. We would continue to look at James Nachtwey's photos if they were written in smoke signal.

But sad to say, in another world far removed from these great photographers, another list has emerged. This list is dubious, to be sure, and it continues to be a ball and chain around the ankle of digital photography. This list goes something like this:

O.J. Simpson's darkened mug shot on the cover of Time.

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan skating together for Newsday (and only Newsday).

Sextuplet mom Bobbi McCaughey's straightened and whitened teeth on the cover of Newsweek.

The pyramids moved closer to one another for National Geographic. (A gimme, no question.)

Texas Governor Ann Richards astride a Harley (and someone else's body)

Mia Hamm in a manipulated Sports Illustrated photo.

This list, like the first, goes on and on as well. In fact, as of today, one can induct a new member: this week's Newsweek cover of Martha Stewart, in which the jailed style maven is seen whooping it up upon her release from prison.

Ummm, now hold on a minute, Matt. Martha Stewart, as of this writing, hasn't been released from prison yet. Oh, silly, not to worry. We'll just hire a model, say the folks at Newsweek, and plop Martha's head on top of someone else's body. No worries!

Geez Louise. Here we go again.

As I started pondering all of the instances of photo manipulations of the past years for this column I quickly realized that there have been two absolute constants: Number one, no one seems to learn from the past. And number two, despite early fears that the power of digital manipulation would be abused in the hands of, say, the Weekly World News, the reality is that it is the giants of the media world that continue to act recklessly. I mean, I actually enjoy seeing Bat Boy in his many Weekly World News incarnations. I'm not quite as thrilled when I see a great photo magazine like Newsweek stooping to the same level.

So let's start with Newsweek and let's look at this quirky, elusive concept known as the photo illustration. Lynn Staley, Newsweek's managing editor, is kidding herself if she truly believes that the average magazine buyer would know that the cover photo of Martha Stewart was a total fabrication. "Anybody who knows the (Stewart) story and is familiar with Martha's current situation would know this particular picture" was a "photo illustration," she tells Mark Memmott. Fat chance. As a former contract photographer and staff photo editor at USA TODAY I'll bet nine out of ten Newsweek readers couldn't even define "photo illustration."

The reason, of course, is that even people who work at newspapers have trouble defining the term. Let's say we're doing a story on the Federal Reserve and we have a fake $100 bill with Allan Greenspan's portrait. That seems like a photo illustration, right? It's silly and preposterous and there's little fear of it being mistaken for a photo of a real bill.

Okay, now say you're doing a story on Martha Stewart going to prison and you have a "photo" of her in prison stripes working on a chain gang. Is that a photo illustration? Why? Because it's over the top? Is being "over the top" the Get Out Of Jail Free card for photo illustrations? Are there other factors that should come into play. When does propriety enter the equation?

Finally, let's say you're doing a cover story on Martha Stewart's impending release and, given the paucity of fresh Martha images, you decide to put Martha's head on a model's body. What is that called? Calling something a "photo illustration" is journalism's answer to "base" in freeze tag. No one can touch you. It's a force field, making a paper impervious to criticism. How many times have we all heard someone say in defense, "Whaaaatttt? We called it a photo illustration!" as if the "calling it" excuses one from scrutiny.

If anything, the average reader will look at the Newsweek cover and assume it was a file photo, taken from some previous event or shoot. My wife and I both looked at the photo and read and re-read the caption many times last night.

I emailed Bert at and even asked him to take a look. I couldn't figure it out and I have 20 years of photojournalism experience. So much for Mr. Genius Average Reader. Newsweek even dances around the truth in it's photo credit. Sure, it credits the photographer who took the head shot of Martha. But why no credit for the model, whose body takes up 87% of the rest of the cover. Because that would be giving away too much, right?

I'm sensitive to all of this because I was once party to a terrible lapse in judgment myself. About 10 years ago, give or take, I was a contract photographer at USA TODAY in Washington. Late one day, facing a 1A deadline with no art, I was asked to quickly come up with a photo to illustrate a story on teen drug use in high schools.

Thinking quickly, but not wisely, I grabbed a petite looking woman and we went down to the lockers near the USA TODAY health club. The idea was to shoot a grainy, silhouette of a "girl" reaching for drugs. I thought that the photo would end up as an iconic "sig" photo.

In the end, given the time invested, the image looked pretty good. But that was the problem. It looked too good. It looked real. Needless to say, we all took a bunch of lumps in the days to follow, lumps all well deserved. Thankfully, the whole affair forced everyone involved to reexamine the use of photo illustrations on news pages.

Is there a blanket, one-size-fits-all, answer to photo illustrations? Probably not. In many cases the problems arise out of a tug-of-war between photographer and art department. These battles are as old as newspapers themselves. But suffice to say, if in the course of your next debate over a photo illustration, the words "put this head on that body" come into play, run. Run very fast.

(Matthew Mendelsohn formerly worked as a contract photographer and a picture editor on the news desk at USA TODAY. He later became the director of photography at USA Weekend. He is currently a freelance photographer in the Washington D.C. area.)

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