Picture Perfect: Why Everyone's So Anal About These Magazine CoversHey! Remember when Sarah Palin was on the cover of Newsweek and Fox News got up in arms because the close-up hadn't been retouched? (Given that it was only last week, I'm gonna go with yes.) Megan very correctly diagnosed this a would-be tempest in a battered teapot, but the fracas sparked a discussion of the ethics of the Photoshop: Is there even such a thing as an objective portrait? What are the responsibilities of the photographer? For that matter, why should it even matter what a politician looks like? Well, says The Atlantic's Virginia Postrel, it's because "accuracy is not the same thing as truth." And at the end of the day, which one do we want?From the subject's perspective, that's a no-brainer. As Postrel puts it, "except for professional models, photo subjects generally expect the wedding album standard to apply: Photos should look realistic, but as attractive as possible. Anything else, whatever artistic justification the photographer or editor may put forward, feels like an ambush. Nobody voluntarily agrees to an unappealing portrait." Postrel makes the point that there is no such thing as one "reality": "Every portrait is inherently false: a static, two-dimensional representation of an ever-changing, three-dimensional face...Even without deliberate distortions, a still photo captures distractions that the mind edits out." To eliminate a distracting hair or bit of natural discoloration is actually to enhance the "trueness" of an image, since it's more like the impression one would receive from meeting a person in life. "Portraiture chooses one image at one moment to stand for the complexities of a personality and a life." As opposed to a plain old photo, a portrait in this sense is for the ages - a picture of a person rather than a person at a particular moment in time. Okay, so we get why people want minimal touch-ups. I get why, too, in the wake of the Jill Greenberg fiasco, Republicans and those who love them are extra-touchy on the subject, especially when Palin's looks have been a major selling point. The real issue, of course, is that we're so used to perfection that we can't handle normalcy. We're used to the airbrushing of covers — we've come to expect that and some even like it — but it's only recently that we've needed to add it to our lives: Facebook and MySpace, of course, but also dating services and camera phones that have become a part of everyone's daily existence. We've talked plenty about how much we as a sex loathe being photographed, the neuroses and pressures that render the selection of a Facebook photo traumatic. This is not who I am!, you want to scream when a picture goes up without your consent. But what, at the end of the day, is "perfection?" What for that matter is beauty? The most interesting element of the piece, for me, was the author's assertion that it's often animation - so appealing in real life - that can make someone appear "unphotogenic."
Candid shots are particularly perilous for people with animated faces, who illustrate their speech with bulging eyes or distorted mouths. In person, they look lively and entertaining. But, in between more flattering expressions, they produce a lot of strange shots. That's why Hillary Clinton's enemies have no trouble finding silly photos of her, while Barack Obama's foes must make do with shots in which the candidate isn't gazing glamorously upward. Obama's cool countenance makes weird candid shots less common.
Mobility, life, is ironically the enemy of posterity - or maybe not ironically at all. Models are not valued for sparkling vivacity, but for the ability to conjure a slow-motion approximation of real emotion. What we perceive as 'beauty,' as perfection, is a face essentially devoid of expression. This is not new; portraiture or daguerreotypes wouldn't exactly have been facilitated by an animated model. But it does seem strange that the same conventions - the idea of "best portrait" should still adhere to constraints imposed by the necessity of antiquated media. Perhaps it might be a stretch to suggest it, but it does seem like there's something pernicious in the equation of blank serenity with beauty. (And yes, I speak as someone whom the camera tends to catch 90% of the time in some awkward expression-transition.) We're told over and over, if somewhat disingenuously, that beauty is more than the physical - yet we're implicitly encouraged to reduce ourselves to a blank and "objective" composite of features for the school picture, the graduation portrait, the wedding announcement. The serene mask that means beauty is, when you think about it, a black canvas: the "mystery" of beauty is that we can project onto it - a face animated with expression and thought has already been inhabited and claimed by the wearer and is, perhaps, the less beautiful for it. Which brings us back to those politicians and their portraits. What they want - need - is not so much perfection as blankness without distraction. They must be a reassuringly blank slate onto which people can project virtues and hopes and, most significantly, a bit of themselves. Because at the end of the day, however critical we might be of our realities, there's nothing in the world more appealing than the dream of our perfect selves. The Politics Of The Retouched Headshot [The Atlantic] Related: The Sarah Palin Non-Photoshop Chop: Fox News Wants To Alter Your Reality