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Text Copyright Rohn Engh
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Historians will look back on the turn of the century as a time when photographers (both film and digital) became more creative with their medium.

Editorial stock photography opens up a vast field of interpretive art. But many photographers first have to break away from their early conditioning, where they were trained to "take" photographs, much as a photojournalist or documentary photographer. That is -- to capture images somewhat like a mirror does. Editorial stock photography, however, allows the photographer to make photographs.

The editorial stock photographer can often create a situation as it 'could be,' or as it 'should be.' His or her photograph can become a springboard for the viewer to see through and beyond what is being photographed. In effect, the photo allows the viewer to become a collaborator in the photo, and extract his or her own meaning from the image. To limit photography simply to mirror-like documentation would be to limit knowledge and understanding.


Creating fresh insights and deeper understanding is not limited to photography. Painters, for example, as we all know, rarely paint their landscapes "true to nature." To limit their illustrations to an exact duplication of nature would be to limit and confine the expression of the painter and the enjoyment of his/her viewers. Artists rearrange the elements [even the lighting] of their paintings, to give wholeness and meaning to a composition that otherwise did not exist. Jazz musicians, for another example, improvise in the melody and rhythm of a basic theme not because they wish to be cute or "different," but because they wish to discover for themselves and their listeners, new meaning inherent in the music.

All of this, of course, does not apply to news photography or photojournalism. It would be dishonest to juggle anything in a news photograph, to misrepresent or lead to the misunderstanding of a scene or subject.

The line between editorial stock photography and news photography sometimes is thin. Photography "purists" might object to "making" photographs in situations that might be interpreted as photojournalism rather than photo illustration.

W. Eugene Smith, the famous editorial photographer, was once criticized for moving a bed away from the wall for a better selection of camera angle in some of his photographs for a photo story on mid-wives for LIFE Magazine. As editorial stock photographers, we often face ethical questions when it comes to such improvisation. If we photograph, for example, teenagers whose blemishes are here today, but gone tomorrow forever, do we leave the 'zits' or retouch them out? Which is the truer interpretation? Would the blemishes be inappropriate if we were illustrating the winners in a student government activity or science fair? Would they remain if you were illustrating nutritional deficiencies, or youth gangs? Or, should the blemishes remain, no matter what the situation? Such questions are ultimately left to you, the editorial stock photographer. It might appear to photography "purists" that allowing such free reign to interpretive photography could lead to problems. However, before the photograph and the photographer came along, our pictorial illustrations were supplied to us via etchings, cartoons, drawings, and paintings. We accepted the artists' interpretations. And we survived.

Comments on this column? Send them to the editor.

Rohn Engh, Photosource International.

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