Saturday, March 14, 2009

Knowing what's "real"

When I was growing up, National Geographic magazine was a staple in our household. We pored over the photos of the Mount St. Helens eruption, flights of the space shuttle, the discovery of the Titanic. But even today, I clearly remember the sense of surprise I experienced when I heard that the magazine had fudged a photo of camels and the pyramids to make it fit the cover better. That couldn't be right...National Geographic was supposed to show what is, not what isn't. But indeed, it was right. The image had been altered and the photographer wasn't happy so the news came out.

How things have changed. Photo retouching is ubiquitous. Of course it's been around almost since photography got it's start. You only have to look at political images through history – Stalin repeatedly removed people from photos once they pissed him off. You just don't realize how dramatic it can be. We're not just talking about smoothing pores, removing wrinkles or zapping zips. (Check out this site for a quick overview of photo tampering through history.)

Watchers of the re-release of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" noticed that the shotguns held by police officers in the climatic bicycle/car chase had been removed in favor of walkie-talkies (so much for the whole message of how hard the adult world can be...). Paul McCartney is holding a cigarette in the iconic Abbey Road photo but you won't see it in any American posters. George Lucas has released God only knows how many different versions of Star Wars as he digitally fiddled with it over the years (and not always for the better, in my opinion). However, that's entertainment, I guess. The blending of real and CGI is only getting more seamless.

Last year, the New Yorker ran a fascinating profile of Pascal Dangin, perhaps the most in-demand photo retouching expert in the fashion world. Sadly the online version doesn't include the before and after versions of a black and white photo of a reclining nude woman. In truth, you wouldn't recognize them as the same photo. Maybe taken during the same sitting but not the same image. This went beyond cleaning it up. Instead the hand and arm were in a different position, her face was turned more, and the list of changes went on and on. It was like a creepy version of those "spot the differences" cartoons for kids. The problem was that if you'd only shown me the "after" version, I would have had no way of knowing that it wasn't real. After seeing it, I wondered if photographer Patrick Demarchelier actually deserved credit because the end result was certainly not the photo he took.

And access to such alteration is no longer limited to fashion plates. The New York Times ran a great piece late last year called "I was there. Just ask Photoshop" about the growing use of digital tools to fundamentally alter our own personal records of the past. For example...have a great vacation photo but it includes your ex? Not a problem!

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a fascinating, brief video opinion piece by Jesse Epstein entitled "Sex, Lies, and Photoshop". It looks the presentation of a retouched photo ideal contributing to negative body image, the process of retouching, and how efforts are being made to regulate the process, perhaps by forcing magazines to publish the unretouched photos, identify the retouching artist with the same credit as the photographer, or listing what specifically was retouched.

In truth, I'm honestly not worked up into too much of a twist when it comes to entertainment. These people are paid to peddle fantasy. Even the supposedly natural photos like the real women series by Dove were significantly retouched by Dangin. Do I believe that the fashion model on the cover of a glossy magazine looks like that? Nope, in the same way I don't believe that a man with a big "S" on his chest can fly (though that would be really cool).

However, it gets harder to accept when retouched materials are presented as fact. I think that's why the "camels and pyramid" image resonated for me as a kid. Now, I guess what I find most amazing is how accepted this practice has become and how we apparently can't live without it. What once tainted the National Geographic with scandal is now largely ignored when Martha Stewart is released from prison and her head is put onto a thinner body by Newsweek to go along with the idea that she's lost weight while behind bars.

Sometimes the fraud gets called out (anyone remember the clumsy "fourth missile" image released by Iran?) and sometimes the faked photo still ends up in the public consciousness and becomes "real" to the detriment of the photo's target. Nevertheless, we trust that the news we see on TV and in the papers is real. We hope that it is, even in aftermath of a deliberately perpetrated hoax on the American people and our allies about the existence of WMDs in Iraq, complete with photos and PowerPoint slides.

I suppose one view of this is that we're gullible. Another is that we hold out a certain sense of optimism and hope that people won't lie to us about the important stuff. And then of course, there's a third possibility -- most people just don't realize how much retouching is done and how dramatic it can be. We've been trained to accept the false as reality. I work in a marketing department and we can't live without Adobe Photoshop. It's a powerful and useful tool. However, I'd like to keep it out of my news reporting. I'll pay extra to go to the movies to see the fantasy.

And just for the record, the photo of my in my profile here is unashamedly unretouched. Yes, I did take that pie to the face, thank you very much and there's no need to make it any prettier.

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