Photo Finish

Can't I trust anyone anymore? How much is true in images taken by famous photographers and published in otherwise-trustworthy magazines? After reading about an ace photo-retoucher in a recent New Yorker I'm shocked, shocked to discover the extent of manipulation going on. As Lauren Collins writes ("Pixel Perfect: Pascal Dangin's Virtual Reality" [1]):

In the March issue of Vogue Dangin tweaked a hundred and forty-four images: a hundred and seven advertisements (Estée Lauder, Gucci, Dior, etc.), thirty-six fashion pictures, and the cover, featuring Drew Barrymore. ... Vanity Fair, W, Harper's Bazaar, Allure, French Vogue, Italian Vogue, V, and the Times Magazine, among others, also use Dangin. Many photographers, including Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel, Craig McDean, Mario Sorrenti, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, rarely work with anyone else. Around thirty celebrities keep him on retainer, in order to insure that any portrait of them that appears in any outlet passes through his shop, to be scrubbed of crow's-feet and stray hairs. ...

It's OK to crop a photo for effect and composition. It's OK to remove redeye flash retroreflections from retinas. It's OK to adjust contrast and overall brightness to reduce or enhance shadows. It's even OK to dodge or burn areas for balance or emphasis. Those techniques are all standard operating procedure in photography; no disclaimer needed. They move an image closer to what an alert human observer might have seen at the place and time that the picture was taken.

But how honest is it to edit without admitting it — to flip pixels, remove wrinkles, splice in background scenery, etc., and then not even mention that alterations were made? I don't think it's honest at all. Is the default nowadays to cheat? Do photographers who don't alter their work have to say so, lest they be branded similar liars? Or is "All's fair" the rule in art, at least for those who have enough skill, time, or money to get it?

And extending the principle: if one can reasonably demand full disclosure in image manipulation, how about for those who enjoy plastic surgery? Or who wear toupees? Or make-up? Or, uh, enhancing undergarments? Where's the line between touch-up and deceit? I have no idea!

^z - 2008-05-25

(correlates: SlipAway, OldMasters, SimplySymbols, ...)