[M] = Muscovey Duck (mus’-ko-vi duk) n. a musk-duck of C. and S.America, so called because it has a faint musky smell.

A few months ago a half-baked idea emerged from a merry meeting somewhere in the land of "Vorsprung". There were indeed some good people discussing the matter of photographic manipulation via bad, bad, very bad computers. "Menace", "Malignancy", "Misrepresentation", "Metempsychoses" and "Manipulation" mixed with cigarette smoke and teutonic jovial jigamaree. The letter "M" was born - not that it mattered to most of us. But the good people put square brackets around the innocent looking member of the alphabet and told the rest of the world that a symbol "[M]" would forthwith indicate the word "manipulation" when a photograph had been tampered with after the exposure . (Some of us manipulate through multiple exposures, which exposure will demand the square bracket treatment, bitteschön?) I could have lived with that as I was sure, with all the little Mercs of the "Elk Class" flipping on their roofs, Germans would soon forget this nonsense.

Far from it: a German photolibrary informed me recently, that I am under an obligation to identify all manipulated photographs with the "[M]" symbol. Not a request, an obligation ! The Rottweiler had landed !

According to (sorry, to have to do this to you) the Bund Freischaffender Foto-Designer (BFF), Bundesverband der Pressebild-Agenturen und Bildarchive (BVPA), Centralverband Deutscher Berufsphotographen (CV), Deutschen Journalisten-Verband (DJV), DOK-Verbandes, FreeLens and the IG-Medien, manipulation requiring the "[M]" symbol occurs when:

1.) Persons or objects are added to or removed from the picture.
2.) Different pictures or parts of pictures are merged into a new picture.
3.) Wherever the scale or the colour of a picture has been affected.

When BAPLA (British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies)  joined the idiotism the following day and asked for the opinion of it’s members, I just had to ruin my Sunday evening.

As a successful photographer, I established myself with "traditional" photography. I have manipulated all my pictures without exeption: be it a polarising filter or gradual filter, a double exposure or a quick fiddle in the darkroom. I have waited for cars to move out of the picture so that people could envisage nature pure. Cycle-oil helped enhance bland ice-cream in the studio. But that’s all right though! For unadulterated real life photography we still have to go down to the photo-booth at Woolworths. Now, that I have invested £/Sterling 95.000 in a real mean computer and all the bad bits that go with it, it’s all easy manipulation! Who are these BFF, BVPA, CV, DJV, DOK, FreeLens and IG-Medien kidding? Where have they been?

Photography has been doctored ever since a Mr. William Henry Fox Talbot nailed his subjects to a chair in order to offer kind assistance during long exposures. Likely minded people have used darkened powder-rooms to dodge and burn-in, have used foul tasting inks to retouch the wrinkles of society and successfully hid nuclear power-stations behind a bunch of daffodils.

Are we so naïve as to think that newspapers and television, or even worse, governments on both sides of the water would ever make use of the "[M]" symbol ? I would be more than simply pleased to have an assurance that I could trust everything I see in print, but why was I given a brain? The good people in Germany went further: not just the photographer has to identify any fiddling, but the end user will be under the same obligation to do so ! German jokes are rarely so funny: Advertising agencies would monopolise the letter in question. It gets worse: the person who undertook the manipulation should also make use of the obligatory symbol. Imagine Colab’s and Tapestry’s (UK photo labs) polite response and their joy over the newly found responsibilities.

As the owner of a Photographic Library, I can see another side too. Imagine the fictitious scenario: a client has a selection of your pictures. He’s happy, he’s waving pound notes/euros/dollar bills (hence fictitious) and he’s got lots more selections from other picture libraries too. But he does like the picture you have supplied, though he is puzzled by the symbol "[M]". You explain. He’s scared shitless. What’s been fiddled with, is the Eiffel Tower indeed in Paris? he whines. You reassure him. So what’s wrong with the god-damn picture? he laments. You don’t know. But you know a man or woman who does: the author of the work. You telephone, e-mail, wap and fax the photographer who is most likely speeding at 13 mph in his/her Aldi (slip of the tongue) Bat-Mobil on the M6 (freeway) listening to Baby Spice. Or he/she is hanging from a cliff in the Gobi desert. Whichever. The reply comes three days later: he/she has removed the telegraph wires in the picture! But your whiner with the colourful bank notes required the photo yesterday. Sounds familiar so far? Never mind the whiner, you have lost the pound notes/euros/dollar bills: your competitor offered an easier choice with the Eiffel Tower poking between the wires into the Paris sky. Give me strength!

Electronic imaging with all it’s shortfalls and creativity is here to stay. The good people in Germany behind this half-baked scheme are not protecting the industry they claim to serve, but play into the hands of the very people, who on a daily basis, rip off photographers, artist and photographic libraries. These people will ignore any symbols to achieve their publishing goal. Imagine being offered a world-exclusive picture of George W. attending a peace rally in Washington D.C. He wouldn't find it on a large-scale map to start with. Do you really expect an "[M]" beside the picture? Would you need it?

Don’t get me wrong: we all disapprove of deception and any client voicing concern is entitled to an honest answer. We need to support our customers with the pictures they require and not insult their intelligence. We also need to show an understanding for the creativity of our suppliers and colleagues. The means of achieving a picture are totally irrelevant, it is the picture itself we need to contemplate. Painters might be next. These guys use anything to get paint onto canvass. Let’s leave a few letters for the artists who employ other means but the humble brush, to earn a crust. Get real!

You don’t have to be a photographer to see what I am getting at: When you get in your car next time, remember that not so long ago your dearest had to walk in front of it with a red flag. The fear of the motorized monster soon turned to enjoyment and we are lumbered with the progress, whether we like it or not.

May I suggest, the good people in Germany employ their spare time to discuss the symbol  © which can be found nearer the beginning of the alphabet. A subject which still requires a tremendous amount of work to be done. The day when the majority of the publishing industry shows respect for the  © symbol, I’ll put any letter of the alphabet in square brackets. The good people in Germany have taken the easy way out and a good time was had by all.

Edmund Nägele, FRPS
Edmund Nägele is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain

Copyright © Edmund Nagele F.R.P.S. All rights reserved.