Rise of the Blur

Because detective shows and soap operas use this blurry-foreground move so regularly, its sudden ubiquity in the news represents a significant shift in register, or even genre, for journalism. Photojournalism has for decades restricted itself to a stark framing of visual facts, never wishing to compromise its evidentiary role in the narration for a more theatrical one. The best news photos deftly capture the drama with a shutter click, but that is also the abiding rule: it either happens in that click, or it doesn’t make it to print.

A specter is haunting photojournalism—an actual, visible specter

You have seen the blurs. They are everywhere foregrounded in the news. Right now I’m looking at a New York Times photo of mustachioed former national security adviser John Bolton speaking at a podium. A dramatically encroaching form, the back of whoever was sitting in front of photographer Win McNamee, takes up the entire left half of the picture. Between the podium and the blur, Bolton is squeezed in, darkly—which is how I feel, too, looking at him being swallowed up like that. Every day, there are new pictures with new blurs: Boris Johnson, in Newsweek, framed by a dark green blur twice his size; Donald Trump, on Vox, with a lavender tsunami of a blur crashing over his left shoulder; it goes on and on, blurrier and blurrier.

We amateurs typically achieve the blur effect by accident, with a thumb interrupting the smartphone’s lens. But these blurs in your newsfeed are purposeful, perhaps even artful. They are being chosen, with notable regularity, by photo editors to illustrate our most serious political stories. Why?

Blurs are as old as photography itself—and fancying up an otherwise boring shot of a politician with some out-of-focus “surroundings” has long been common practice—but the framing in this kind of photo is something new. These days I see the shadowy edges first, and the in-focus politician second. Photos without the dark border have started to look flat to me. They feel cropped, their subject naked, lacking in some kind of essential dimension.

I first became fixated on the blur early in the Trump era. I don’t know if the 2016 election coincided with a sudden uptick in photos like this, or if I was noticing them more because the effect now had meaning. I imagined the White House bureau photographers feeling crowded and claustrophobic—shocked by what was unfolding through their lenses and by their own proximity to it—deciding to bruise an otherwise ordinary snap with the dark form of the person in front of them. Or was it the photo editors who spotted this framing and selected it ahead of more direct and unblocked photos? For an editor or photographer grieving for a time before they were branded “the enemy of the people,” this was a journalistically admissible way to insert a big mood into publications that did not allow their staff to brood on the page.

There are, of course, technical explanations for the phenomenon. I have been told that what I was seeing was just the increased prowess of the telephoto lens, or merely the resurgence of shallow depth-of-field. And it’s true, the combined effects of sharp focus and blur place the photographer in a particular location. Paradoxically, authenticity in the deepfake era might require not clear details—those you could grab anywhere and switch out at will—but a one-of-a-kind blush, like a digital watermark, all across the front of the picture, which would tell us that you were really there. These blurs also seemed slightly virtuosic. Perhaps they represented a boast of professionalism from a profession under attack: sure, your iPhone in portrait mode can fuzz out the background a little, the photographers seemed to be saying, but with my Canon 1D X I can put that fuzz anywhere—watch!

What makes something technically possible is not necessarily what makes it meaningful. These insider-y explanations weren’t implausible, exactly, but the more of them I heard the more they seemed too piecemeal to describe something so pervasive. These simple reasons were too modest to account for the conspicuousness of it all. Blurs had certainly been hanging around photojournalism for a while, but now they were crowding everything else in, seemingly with purpose. But what purpose?

I went looking for clues. I wanted to see what other critics were saying—whether they were roaming in the same shadows I was.

In “Through a Glass, Darkly: Visibility in Trump’s America,” an article from March 2017, the academic Robert Hariman responded to the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” slogan (added to the masthead in February 2017) by asking if Donald Trump’s anti-journalistic regime meant that the “conditions of visibility were changing.” A very provocative question! And a very broad one, ultimately too broad for the materials he analyzed. What Hariman wanted to say was that the photojournalistic darkness he was seeing was registering the aftereffects of a catastrophe. Focusing on a Terray Sylvester photograph with a recently abandoned Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp burning in the distance, Hariman asked “Is it too much to say that we are looking through a glass, darkly?” I scrolled down excitedly, looking for a photograph of the type I had been seeing, with the dark blotches in the foreground, but Hariman didn’t include any. A commenter named Andrew Molitor said exactly what was on my mind: “What is the connection between the photograph shown and the title?”

I tried to find the connection myself. Despite the fact that the photo he chose to analyze centers the smoky darkness, Harriman writes repeatedly about darkness and edges, saying at one point, “Although at a distance from the burning, you are part of the much larger environment—one where darkness seems to have the edge,” and then two paragraphs later: “The Trump regime is already shadowy . . . on the edge of darkness in the worst sense.” Hariman laments the state of journalism generally and says photojournalism “too often is showing us only the aftermath.” He doesn’t cite any other images, presumably because “Too much of the damage is being done off-stage.” Indeed! But Hariman leaves it there.

In 2017, people were shocked, looking back, feeling dark. The catastrophe had taken place. Hariman wanted to focus on that, so he picked a photo with a burning camp in the middle, receding into the distance as if into the past. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, since it was a short, speculative piece written in the heat of the journalistic moment, but this essay ended up being helpful to my understanding because Hariman got everything exactly backwards, both in the details and in the analysis. The catastrophe of the election didn’t recede at all; it loomed and loomed. In 2020, it still looms! The new photographic effect was one of darkness, yes, but the point was that it wasn’t illustrative, that it happened exclusively at the edges, never in the center. It didn’t depict a specific, nameable thing, like smoke from a fire, but rather unnamable, blurry entities, operating just out of sight. These kinds of images, which we saw on the front pages day after day, didn’t give one the feeling that a specific catastrophe had just occurred, but just the opposite: the constant sense of dread and foreboding—that disaster was impending.

In May 2017, the critic Aruna D’Souza, a former art historian and a connoisseur of the blur going back to the days of Degas, noticed that the pixel cloud was constantly gathering around Jared Kushner. D’Souza posted five examples to her Facebook page and observed:

There’s a mounting creepiness to the way Jared Kushner is photographed all the time by the press that has less to do with his actual and undoubtable creepiness and more to do with a set of signs that are, to me, bordering on anti-Semitic. Not sure how to put it—but the picking out of his face, isolated by the surrounding blur, the silent man behind the power who is constantly surveying the scene, the inscrutability.

This reading seemed totally accurate to me, and the distancing did seem particularly dramatic for Kushner—at the time he seemed a more frequent recipient of this kind of visual treatment. But as the years have gone by, the President himself and plenty of non-Jewish members of his administration—and indeed, other governments—have all been presented behind this fragmentary scrim. So if anti-Semitism was at one point a good explanation for the phenomenon, it now functions more as overriding subtext, the sense of conspiracy and fear of a cabal disseminated across an ever-broader visual field, distributed to more and more targets.

Rereading the comments on D’Souza’s Kushner post, I noticed something that the historian Laleh Kalili said—that the Kushner images reminded her of the imagery on TV procedurals, where the boyfriend turns out to be the guilty party. These television shows have certainly taught us that the middle-grounding of a character signals intrigue and suspicion. After countless courtroom scenes and party vignettes, we have learned to see a relationship between foregrounding in space and foreboding in time. Just as when a fuzzy vase, for example, in a period film briefly impedes our view of a dinner guest, suggesting something is amiss, the blurry framing all over the news implies that we are watching not just a story, but rather a plot.

Because detective shows and soap operas use this blurry-foreground move so regularly, its sudden ubiquity in the news represents a significant shift in register, or even genre, for journalism. Photojournalism has for decades restricted itself to a stark framing of visual facts, never wishing to compromise its evidentiary role in the narration for a more theatrical one. The best news photos deftly capture the drama with a shutter click, but that is also the abiding rule: it either happens in that click, or it doesn’t make it to print. Framing and depth-of-field are the only things the photographer can deploy in that moment, so that’s why they’re being used together and pushed to extraordinary limits in the rise of the blur.

Still, for a long time, I thought all of this was too strange, too fuzzy, to discuss. I had contented myself with telling everyone I was noticing it and with the reassurances that they were noticing, too. I also contented myself with a huge collection of screengrabs. I convinced myself both that I wasn’t making this up and that, due to an essential indistinctness of the subject, I couldn’t really say anything useful about it. Maybe this was a cop out, or an aftereffect of the blurs, I don’t know. But all that changed on October 26, when I was scrolling through the New York Times and four photos lined it all up.

First was the Bolton photo, which I would consider a classic of the genre. The headline drives home the point: “Waiting for Bolton: A Capital Speculates on What He Will Say.” Then, right below that, a picture of Joe Biden with darkness behind him and a blurry form cutting diagonally in front of him, covering that half of the picture, to make it look as if he were sinking into darkness. The headline: “‘Very Alarming’: Biden Campaign Races to Fix Money Woes.” To accompany these dark blur photos, there were two literal images: one of a shadow on the Capitol, appended to an article about a judge finding the impeachment inquiry legal, and then a smoky picture of the fires in Sonoma. This alignment between, roughly speaking, governmental and environmental collapse was what I had had in my mind every time I saw the blurs. But I never expected to see it all connected so starkly on the page.

I was surprised in part because the blur functions best as an insinuation. It has an element of gossip about it. I want to say it is like a whisper or a murmur, but in fact, the blur functions wordlessly. When your mind tries to link it to “government corruption” or “systemic collapse,” the blur retreats.

That’s because it doesn’t illustrate the particular phenomenon, so much as our feelings—our dread—about what is going on outside of view, outside of our control. This might be why the blur is so often positioned like a velvet curtain. Nestled inside the relentless clarity of our Super Retina displays, the dark swath of pixels also comes as a kind of relief. The blurs are weirdly sensual. The framing is voyeuristic. We have access, the photographers seem to be saying, but we don’t have access. Unlike the other pervasive abstraction of our time—the black rectangle of government redaction—the blur is being inserted by the journalists themselves. It isn’t self-censorship though—it’s weirder than that. If anything, the blur has the heat and the blush of pure expression. Each instance, however, employs the tactic of plausible deniability. “A dark, looming figure just happened to block more than half of this otherwise perfect shot,” the photo says. News outlets have tended to parcel the blurs out one at a time, perhaps in an effort to preserve visual variety. But there’s another possibility: if you put all these pictures together, they accumulate to something monstrous, almost obscene.

Since 2016, the foreground blurs have grown not only in frequency but also in size. What was once a subtle framing became an interruption, then an encroachment; now the fuzziness regularly suffocates the subject. Trump, of course, has been pictured this way almost daily, with a dark blur closing in on him from all or most sides. His henchmen, too: Mulvaney, Barr, Bolton. But many others get the smudge treatment. In the past few weeks, in the Times alone, Adam Schiff had a black and red blur swirling all around him, to accompany a warning: “Democrats: Don’t Overreach on Impeachment.” Michael Bloomberg, entering the presidential race as a moderate, was put the middle of gargantuan blurs coming at him from all sides. Pete Buttigieg was shown stroking his chin behind a crowd of blurry forms to illustrate a piece about how he has “quit playing nice.” The indicted businessman Carlos Ghosn, also hand to chin, was engulfed by a peach cloud coming in from the left and blackness on the right as he fled Japan. Netanyahu, also indicted, was similarly squeezed in by curtains of darkness on both sides. Cory Booker was visually ushered out of the Democratic primary by a blur.

And yet even as the blur metastasizes, Trump has regained his position at its vanguard. As he faced impeachment, Trump was no longer surrounded by blurs. He had, instead, become the blur. In a notable case of paper-of-record and magazine-of-record alignment, the New York Times and the New Yorker used extremely similar images to chronicle the extent to which the President found himself hemmed in by the impeachment inquiry. On December 14, the Times’s editorial endorsing impeachment was accompanied by Al Drago’s image of Trump’s out-of-focus head haloed by a perfectly in-focus presidential seal. Five days later, the New Yorker used a remarkably similar image—seemingly taken seconds later, by a different photographer, Brendan Smialowski—of a crisp presidential seal around the president’s fuzzed-out head, which was now turning away from the camera. This accompanied a piece about Christianity Today’s editorial against the President, so the halo composition took on deeper meaning as the sharply focused stars came to look like thorns—a further reminder that to some, he is a martyr, and that each blur must to them resemble a digital Shroud of Turin.

On December 30, the Intercept published a spectacular image of father Trump’s very blurry face diagonally overlapping daughter Trump’s in-focus one. The President is barely recognizable and impossible not to recognize. The shot puts him in front of her, but his forehead curves in line with her nose, and their hairlines conjoin, fusing them in the blur. It is a crazy kind of photographic cubism, and the spatial intimacy of it pushes us beyond thoughts of family resemblance or even nepotism into the decidedly creepy zone of their relationship. His mouth is partially cropped out, but if it wasn’t it would be breathing down her neck. If this picture poetically distills the horror of it all, it also exemplifies the methods photojournalists have used to document this presidency. There is no Photoshop here. Instead, the professionally sanctioned clicking and cropping have been pushed to their limits, combining into something emphatic and surreal. To call this depth of field would be to understate it terribly. It is a grotesque fusion. That we don’t fall off our chairs when we see this tells us how far we have come, photographically, in a very short time. We are a long way from Pete Souza’s languid, almost classical compositions on the Obama-era White House Flickr account, which in retrospect feel tinged with approaching horror, like the famous shot of golfers in Washington state seemingly unperturbed the wall of flames just behind them. It’s hard to say what will come next. Maybe more flames. It’s possible that the bright orange photos of Australia’s ravenous fires—arid Turner landscapes for the anthropocene—will also render all these blurs quaint and modest.

Following closely on the Intercept’s disturbing coupling, the Times published two pictures of a blurry Trump, right next to each other. In the top one, for a Gail Collins column, a huge, off-kilter Trump torso blurs headless across a gigantic flag. He’s cropped at the neck, but you recognize the tie. Right below that jarring picture sits a Damon Winter photo where the blur is so prolonged that Trump’s face skids across the image and registers twice. In the less distorted impression, you recognize Trump by his grimace; in the second, a ghostlier head teeters out beyond his suit’s shoulder, dissolving more fully into orange fuzz. This murky vision illustrates a Lee Siegel piece about our national depression. If the facts don’t stick, the pixels eventually follow suit. The lights of the city slide behind and in front of the President, with a red one going across his torso, landing on his heart. The brightest streak, appropriately orange, hits him on the chin, on his neck folds, in the jugular. This, too, is both an apparition and a decapitation.

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