Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The non-factual as truth in photography

Following up last year’s regulation of runway models’ weight, Valerie Boyer, of President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, proposed legislation last September for disclaimers on retouched photographs in print ads, billboards, and even political campaign posters. The legislation proposed does not ban or limit retouching, airbrushing, Photoshop or any photo-manipulation-- it simply asks that where these methods are applied, they are accompanied with a label stating to what extent the photograph is altered. Boyer wants one label, aimed at fashion photography, to read in bold: “Retouched photograph aimed at changing a person's physical appearance".

Her interest is in protecting the naive-- she reasons: “these photos can lead people to believe in a reality that does not actually exist, and have a detrimental effect on adolescents. " To Boyer’s mind, it falls to governmental regulation “to advise the public on whether what they are seeing is real or not." (

Many fashion figureheads the US and Europe have spoken out against this law, most speaking on either the freedom to Photoshop or in defense of the elusive feminine ideal the fashion world is accused of purporting. But neither of these objections really speaks to the proposed legislation, since both retouching and its produced ‘ideal’ are not being banned or restricted in scope-- the same kinds of magazine covers may proliferate, they only need to declare themselves altered. So what is harmed or destroyed in labeling these images, if it’s not the craft or retouching or popular ideal?

The label on the magazine cover would indirectly but effectively destroy both the status of the retoucher and the perpetuated ideal because the illusion of the image-as-photograph would dissolve. Suddenly the magazine image is subverted into a Thomas Kinkade piece-- transparently generic, with no reference to or evocation of reality. The pictured woman is no longer striking as a woman, only as a work. And as a work, she is benign-- no one would attempt to live up to painted image. It’s only when the picture has purchase on reality does it inspire imitation. When the consumer believes the cover model to be as perfect as pictured, she hasn’t found an ideal, but a precedent. This status of beauty she now knows is humanly possible, and the model is proof. She doesn’t discount potential retouching, and its potential presence doesn’t impugn the virtue of the image, since the final product is built off the model. Though there might be a little illusion, the majority of the image is true, representing a real person.

This encapsulates the tension inherent in the encounter with the modern photograph-- the simultaneous and contradictory convictions that what is pictured is not factual while what is pictured is still truthful. Looking at a magazine cover, we can posit that the image has been retouched (though, if it’s done well, it will be hard to know where), and this thought does not need to impede our enjoyment of the image. The images are made to be beautiful, not to be court evidence. In this situation we can accept ‘better is better’. As for images for court or dating sites, we’d say ‘truthful is better’. But even in magazine spreads designed first to be beautiful, the medium of photography is enough to suggest an underlying truthfulness. Even if the beautiful image is not factual, we want it to be truthful, not all artifice.

Could it be instead that the imitation of the image through retouching points out the truth behind the image? Perhaps if the picture doesn’t say something factually true of the model, it might, as an imitation of the female form, reveal something true about a female ideal. Instead of vaulting models to some status of human perfection, airbrushing instead insists that no one can attain such a status, and the composite Photoshopped image is modern proof that art (through human agency) is necessary for beauty.

Gadamer, in his section on ‘Art & Imitation’ articulates this theory, applying it to both art and language (though it largely addresses meaning itself). He writes:

“Recognition as cognition of the true occurs through an act of identification on which we do not differentiate between the representation and the represented...for what imitation reveals is precisely the real essence of the thing” (G 99).

This idea hinges on the natural selection in the process of recognizing the essential and necessary characteristics of a thing-- when these are discerned and imitated, the re-presentation is, in a way, a truer, clearer picture of the original because all the external nonessentials are stripped away. For a pithy example: call to mind the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe standing on those blasting subway vents for a promotional poster for ‘The Seven Year Itch’. It’s already a familiar image. But what is startling about this image (making indeed an icon), is how effectively it’s recalled in the simplest imitation. All anyone needs to conjure this image is a short, platinum blonde wig and a white halter dress. If a baby gorilla were dressed in this, it would still evoke Marilyn Monroe in that poster. Of course, the imitations can vary in how convincing or exact they are-- pearls, heels, the drawn-on mole would all add to the life-likeness of the imitation. But what is inviolable is the necessity and ultimate sufficiency of simply the wig and dress to recall the target image of Marilyn.

Gadamer would appreciate the divide between Marilyn and the baby gorilla-- the imitation should not replicate so perfectly that it becomes its referent. No one dressing up in this costume expects to be mistaken for Marilyn herself. The imitator is supposed to be recognizable as something that is not the referent and at the same time embodies the necessary qualities of the referent in the imitation. In a way, the gorilla participates more in ‘Marilynness’ than Marilyn does. Marilyn herself, as a person, contains unnecessary features extraneous to the image essential to the ‘Seven Year Itch’ poster-- the shape of her ears, the exact size of her feet, even her height are all properties of the person that are nonessential to the iconic image. And when a person (or gorilla) imitates this image, they precisely do that-- they don’t actually conjure Marilyn.

This imitation unites the familiar with the foreign. In the same way, the retouched cover model as an image performs the same kind of imitation of itself as an ideal. As it channels some social female ideal, it is not identical to the referent (which is actually an ineffable idea), but it channels and re-presents all the necessary features of it. The model herself, the skeletal structure on which the Photoshopper will build, belongs to a certain homogenous pool who are only privileged by their proximity to an ideal. One model imitating another would necessitate some human original to be channeled. Instead, the photographer and retoucher in fashioning an image are imitating the beautiful ideal by discerning and applying the necessary, impossible characteristics. Only after the retoucher has applied his tools to the image does it channel an ideal. A Polaroid of a model is disappointingly pedestrian. A magazine image of the same model is superhuman, effacing and embellishing the human beyond its own limits. This is the definition of ‘ideal’.

In a way, photographs are the last frontier of images-as-truth. While we admit some photographs can be manipulated, we still think that at its core the photo must reveal something factual. It is this tension that labeling would destroy. It would disallow the hopeful ambiguity of the viewer about what is real and what is art-- the illusion makes the image beautiful. We know it participates in truth and art, and we are unconcerned with the Real or factual. Labeling would only draw attention to the alterations as artifice, giving no heed to the necessity of the illusion.

To Benjamin, the retouched fashion photograph could be the united work of the painter and the photographer where the painter is the Photoshopper. Benjamin contrasts the operations of the two as such: “the painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, whereas the cinematographer [or photographer] penetrates deeply into its tissue”. Where the photographer can only show a piece or part of an object, the painter’s is “a total image”, coherent and sufficient to itself (35). The retouched photo could also unite authenticity with technological reproducibility, always at odds (according to Benjamin) since reproduction dilutes the experience of the work as having a unique existence in a particular place (21). Although the image does not belong to a particular physical place, the genre of retouching has borne a new realm of existence for the image-- one of hybrid artistry and technological capture. In this inverted concept of authenticity, the focus is not on an original (because there is no original referent). Instead of mitigating that the original is somewhere, it emphasizes that the original is nowhere. The image belongs to a new unique realm that defies physical location. The inspiration for the image belongs to a realm of ideas; the image requires the imitation of the idea be revealing, truthful unto itself.

Photoshop reminds us that we human beings are not our own artworks-- we participate in a potentially beautiful form, and we trust our artists to discern what features are necessary to make us impossibly but perfectly beautiful. We want to entrust ourselves to artists, not machines. Traditionally and always, artists have rendered more beautiful images.

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