Martin Parr, Madonna, and Sepia tones

Pop star Madonna holds the child named Mercy, whom she hopes to adopt, in an undated sepia publicity photo taken in Malawi. Photograph: Publicity handout/Reuters

In what could be a small followup to Joerg Colberg’s earlier apprehension of black and white documentary style photography, Martin Parr’s penned a pithy analysis of handout photos provided by pop-singer Madonna from her recent attempt to adopt a child in Malawi.

Choosing sepia is all to do with trying to make the image look romantic and idealistic. It’s sort of a soft version of propaganda. … This predilection for sepia is all part of the baggage we have about photography … people seem to think it looks more real.” -Martin Parr

As media outlets dwindle, the majority of the viewing public’s connection with visual communication will increasingly be the province of handouts, PR shots, and propaganda, if it hasn’t already. While some might lament the failings of the mainstream media, one hopes newsrooms endeavour to hold themselves to a higher and less manipulative visual language than a publicity campaign. Analyses such as Parr’s here are necessary to the understanding of what we’re shown.

And while we’re at it, Randy Cohen, of the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s regular “The Ethicist” column (my favorite magazine column, next to Harper’s Index and Harper’s Weekly Review), analyzes the ethical concerns of international adoption for his new NYT blog “Moral of the Story.”

6 Responses to “Martin Parr, Madonna, and Sepia tones”

  1. Matt Lutton

    Hmm.. I’m a bit divided with Mr Parr on this one. For starters I look at this picture and laugh .. it looks funny. Sephia is incredibly cliche because it is almost by definition trying too hard. If I saw this in a publication (granted it probably would be murky as hell in print and I’d assume someone screwed up a cmyk switch on a monotone photo) I would immediately know that it wasn’t a ‘real’ picture. Of course, would most people feel that way? I’d hope so.. when was the last time a sephia picture was run in a publication? Silly line of argument by me but that was my reaction.
    Second, though, is Parr’s argument that everything should be shot in color. (I think this is what he means reading between the lines? that black and white is as scandalous as sephia?) I’d need more time to really think about that and make an argument against but viscerally I am against it. Black and white will always have a place, not least because that is how much of photography started. Yes color is the dominant mode today, in art circles helped by Parr I’m sure, but because there has been a technological advance (color films and digital) doesn’t mean that one must abandon the rest or be labeled as ‘hankering after old values’ (?). Strange argument.

    • cecile

      Mate, I think you missed the whole point.
      can’t be bothered to try to explain why…

  2. M. Scott Brauer

    That’s right, Matt. Definitely what I was hoping someone would pick up on. The conclusion of Parr’s argument is that ordinary color (maybe deadpan color) is the only way to make a truthful photograph, and I don’t think that’s right. Where Parr (and Colberg and others) are right is that something isn’t truthful simply because it’s black and white (or sepia, in this case). In fact, as Parr points out, because something is shown in sepia, or indeed black and white, one might do well to be doubly suspicious of the motives for presenting the pictures in such a way. As Parr sees it, as I read him, black and white is identical to sepia; that position’s too radical, but it’s a track worth exploring. There’s a ton of baggage inherent in black and white imagery (or, at least, in black and white photojournalism) and it adds a great deal of meaning, for better or worse, to pictures when presented to an audience. If you were to imagine, for instance, an audience that’s only ever known black and white pictures (or perhaps mostly only known black and white pictures) none of the extra emotional baggage of black and white photography–the grittiness, the rawness, the authenticity, whatever–doesn’t exist. So, when we present images in black and white, the long history of photography, and the general abandonment of black and white by the mainstream press, is present in our images with the attendant emotions.

    And then, to pick up your thread of how this picture would play in a magazine or wherever, I’m sure the image has been seen by legions more people than Nachtwey’s TED-funded project. Regardless of whether the Madonna image counts as serious or not, it (and the rest of Madonna’s weird adoption adventures over the years) has framed the issue of AIDS in Malawi, the plight of children there, and the notion of international adoption, in a very strong way. That this is now presented in sepia, with all the emotions that entails, is cause for concern and analysis.

  3. Paul

    I tend to agree also sepia is a bit of a cop out. It looks almost cartoon like these days and is a simple trick to make things look old, bring on the nostalgia, give something more history than its worth and give it a movie like romantic idealistic persona.

    It reminds me of a joke by Demetri Martin. He mentions how digital cameras allow for instant nostalgia. As soon as the picture is taken you can say ..”oh look at us, there we were” Using sepia ( a filter that is on most digital cameras) could give the feeling of this nostalgia even more legs or help it come crashing to reality!!

    Let us hope for less sepia from here on

    Paul Telling
    Creative Communications Creator and Graphic Facilitator
    Pauls Site
    Visualise and Monetise!

  4. Jeremy M. Lange

    Black and White/ sepia as nostalgia, sure, but as has been argued above, none the less truthful, it does sort of depend on the situation. Like the Madonna thing, it is such a blatant attempt to prey on feeling of nostalgia and to distract from the pure PR motives of the shot.
    As a counter example on the same topic

    http://mediastorm.org/0012.htm

    Simply well done, moving photojournalism, in b/w. This seems to me to be the “real” story, not Madonna’s attempt to adopt a kid, although that in and of itself is not a bad thing.
    There are some color photos of Ashburn’s in a Time slideshow, mixed in with the b/w, that just do not do it for me the way the monotone images strip the rest of the scene away and make you focus on the kids and their situation. Link below.

    http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1891261,00.html?xid=rss-photoessays

  5. Davin Ellicson

    Madonna in this picture looks like Kate Winslet’s sister

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