The Importance of Minuscule Details

This morning I was discussing with Beverly the subject of retouching and "enhancing" my digitized negatives and transparencies. We talked about some of the spots she removed in one of the photos. I said some of the spots may not need to be retouched if they look like they belong in the photo. That got me to thinking about the importance of tiny details in photos.

Several months ago I read "Believing Is Seeing" by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. The book has four sections. Within the four sections are six case studies in photographic detective work. Morris was a private detective earlier in his career and he apparently applied investigative skills in examining photographs to derive information from minute detail.

Much more than writing about the history surrounding the photos, Morris delves into the photos in an extraordinary way. He examines minuscule details to derive additional meaning or interpretation from the images.

The detailed study of the infamous Al-Jamadi photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and specifically the photo whistleblower Sabrina Harman, one of the soldiers accused of wrong-doing was undertaken. Harman provided the photos that drew public attention to the situation.

He interviewed an expert in "Smile Science" and who claimed Harman's smile was not a smile of enjoyment. She was leaning over the body of a dead Iraqi prisoner giving a thumbs up gesture. That conclusion provided some weight to the argument that Harman was not at fault but rather an unwilling participant in the whole affair.

It's one of several fascinating stories Morris tells regarding six famous images he examines in a search for greater meaning in the mostly historic photos he examines. This is an unusual and most appropriate supplement to photojournalism.

My photos, though not nearly as historical, are journalistic in nature. Therefore retouching is a form of editing. How much editing is required or even desirable? The conclusion I come to is that the overall meaning of the photos must not be altered but any details that would distract from that meaning can and should be altered.