The governor’s new clothes

Below John writes about the most recent embarrassment of the New York Times. Let’s not forget the one from earlier this week, amusingly addressed by Mickey Kaus. Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured Matt Bai’s cover story on former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, touted as the moderate and electable alternative to Hillary Clinton. Below is the unflattering cover photograph that the Times ran with the story.


Here is the correction that the Times ran on Wednesday:

The cover photograph in The Times Magazine on Sunday rendered colors incorrectly for the jacket, shirt and tie worn by Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor who is a possible candidate for the presidency. The jacket was charcoal, not maroon; the shirt was light blue, not pink; the tie was dark blue with stripes, not maroon.

The Times’s policy rules out alteration of photographs that depict actual news scenes and, even in a contrived illustration, requires acknowledgment in a credit. In this case, the film that was used can cause colors to shift, and the processing altered them further; the change escaped notice because of a misunderstanding by the editors.

Mickey Kaus calls it the Times “correction obfuscation of the week” and comments: “The film made us do it!”

UPDATE: A reader who asks us to withhold his name for professional reasons observes:

I’m a portrait painter, photographer and illustrator who has done NYT magazine covers. There is no film on the planet that can change a charcoal jacket to maroon and a blue tie to the same maroon while miraculously rendering realistic fleshtones.

All colors were clearly altered in Photoshop to all belong to the same color family — an age-old portrait technique used to emphasize the face.

To say “the processing altered them further” is a magnificent [mystification of agency] to create a non-existent entity which somehow altered the colors. THEY altered the colors but don’t want to admit it.

He kindly adds: “Love your blog.” I should add: “We love our readers,” and you can see why.

MORE: Reader John Galvin disagrees:

I’ve got to side with the Times on this one. I prep photos for publication everyday. I can go through hundreds in a week. One of the things I do is color correction. Colors do shift. The New York Times is one of the better outfits for providing documentation about the proper settings for color and grayscale submissions. They have their on ColorSync profile available for download. Even with all this, bad things happen.

The management of color from camera through press is incredibly complex, with a chance for a goof at any stage. Just a miscalibrated computer monitor can turn something into garbage. When the times refers to “film,” it’s not in the sense that most people think. It’s the film used when creating the separations necessary for printing color. Creating those separations is loaded with potential pitfalls.

The general rule, to make sure things come out as they’re supposed to look is to print a “proof” on a proofing printer. However, there can still be difficulties if the printer does not met the same output specs as the press.

Just this week I noticed a huge color difference in yellow Nabisco Fig Newton boxes as I walked by them in the supermarket. I actually stopped and looked closely, thinking maybe they were different varieties. They weren’t. A goof had happened. I don’t think that the people making the boxes had it “in” for Fig Newtons.

Every single person who works with graphics has had the problem of color shifting, many times. My last time with the Times was last summer, for a 1/4 page add. Some complex transparency didn’t work as planned. That was my fault for getting too fancy with newspaper printing.

Our original correspondent responds:

I’ve had many hundreds of images published by dozens of magazines and newspapers over the last 20 years and have never had a color shift that comes anywhere near this bizarre transformation of charcoal grey and blue to pure maroon. If there is a shift at all it always takes the form of a general, overall shift, which in this case would have turned Warner’s face into a ghoulish purple.

To suggest that the NYT simply goofed during the ultra-micromanaged cover design process and got maroon where they actually wanted grey and blue is beyond credible. Wouldn’t someone have asked, “Does he really dress like that?”?

Reader Paul Everitt adds:

I must comment on this posting. I am a professional product photographer with 30 years experience. One of the continual problems of rendering colors accurately is the color response of the film used (digital also has this problem). Just as insects see the colors of our world differently than we do, so each type of film “sees” colors in it’s own way. Certain films have difficulty rendering neutrals as neutral, but reproduce skin perfectly.

All you have to do is visit any photograph web site that compares film, or visit a printer website to see the claims made about their ability to render prints faithfully to the original to realize how fragile accurate rendition of reality is. Don’t neglect human’s own color sensitivity issues too. None of this necessarily lets NYT off the hook, though. Make them provide the film/chemical combo that produced the shift [so] it can be compared to known published issues.

Reader Bob Holmgren comments:

One of the wonderful things about the internet is access to experts. As an example I would point to your work on Rathergate. Similarly, experts could have been consulted on the Mark Warner photo flap. As a long-time magazine photographer, I can attest to the penchant for change an innovation in that career. Photographers feel the need to develop a “signature style” to brand them in a way that creates a demand for the services of a particular photographer. Lawyers have specialties, photographers have a style.

Alexei Hay is the photographer who shot Mark Warner. He is not a Times employee. He is known for a particular style that sometimes shoots film that is deliberately misprocessed in order to render colors falsely. Photographers call this cross-processing. I can assure you that this in and of itself is not animus. It may be a factor the photo editor had in choosing who to hire for that job.

Photographers like to shoot for the Times even though the pay is extremely sub-standard. Consider it free publicity in the country’s largest media market.

Photographs used with stories are not to be seen as factual documents — they’re illustrations. Poses, situations and colors are subject to playful innovation. As such, they draw attention to the story and give a publication stylistic appeal. Publications are not obligated to produce material that satisfies the object of the story.

The Times could have told you all of this but chose to cast it somehow as a mistake or misunderstanding. I don’t think they had it in for Warner, but the excuse is baloney. Color correction is extremely easy to do even if the film is cross-processed. They should have told readers that they like Alexei Hay’s style for what it is and left it at that.

In his update on this subject, Mickey Kaus writes:

The photographer used “an infrared chrome film, originally designed for 70-millimeter movie cameras, that changes hues when processed in the darkroom,” reports Gabriel Sherman of NYO. That makes the NYT’s correction deceptive mainly in giving the impression there was no human agency involved. Maybe they didn’t manipulate the image to make Warner look creepy. Instead they chose a self-photoshopping film that made Warner look creepy! Someone made that choice. You think the photographer didn’t realize he was acheiving this effect? Does the Times permit photographs that readers think are accurate representations of what candidates really look like but in fact aren’t at all?… And would they dare do that to Hillary?

(Italics and emphasis in original.)


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