22 October 2009

Photographic Paternalism

Writing in the NY Times, Randy Cohen asks "Should ads using electronically altered images be banned?" and answers that question, just as the Lib Dems in Britain and UMP parliamentarians in France have answered it, in the disturbing and misguided affirmative.

(French MP Valérie Boyer, the leading proponent of such a law in France, goes so far as to say that warnings should be mandated not just on advertisements, but on art photography. Screw you, Boyer. Fear No Art.)

It's misguided because it rests on the notion that a photograph, before being photoshoped, is some canonical and uncorrupted physical manifestation of a real scene. It's not. Even without Photoshop, it's not. Everything about a photograph is the result of a conscious decision by the photographer. A photograph is thoroughly mediated through the photographer, it is not an unadulterated reproduction of reality.

The lighting, the composition, set dressing, make-up and costuming, even unavoidable basics like the aperture and focal length all manipulate the effect a photo has on the audience. This whole brouhaha was stirred up by fashion photography, and that's especially "fake" even before any digital manipulation. Clothes are clamped and pinned and taped onto models to adjust the fit and remove any unsightly folds and wrinkles and sags. That's why everything fits so slim and straight and clean. (Walk around the back side of a mannequin in a store to see a modest version of this.) Are you going to ban those "manipulations" too?

I don't understand the ignorance necessary to think photographic manipulation starts and ends with Photoshop. Look at Ingrid Bergman on the set of Casablanca in 1942:

Certainly no Photoshop used back then, but she still benefits from all sort of "unrealistic" manipulations. Bergman is a gorgeous woman, no two ways about it, but real women don't have the advantage of someone following them around pointing catch lights at them to produce a sparkle in their eyes, or being lit at all times with flattering, soft, diffuse lighting, or getting gently backlit to produce subtly angelic hallow effects.

Why are any digital manipulations considered harmful but such analog manipulations acceptable?

Infuriatingly, Cohen admits that limitations only on digital manipulations to photographs are arbitrary, are an abrogation of free expression, are the beginning of a slippery slop towards regulating all visual presentations, and would probably be ineffectual and then just shrugs it all off. "Sure, here are four unanswered objections to my scheme, but so what?! It's still worth it so I'm not creeped out by overly retouched ads."

Cohen also angers me at the end by saying that this issue is exclusively women's burden. No suit will ever fit me the way it does in a spread in Esquire or GQ, because of the aforementioned pins and clips and tape. I don't get to keep 180 degrees of myself out of the viewer's eye at all times. I don't get to pose in the most flattering ways possible. And let's not mention Andy Roddick's head on someone else's body on the cover of Men's Fitness. Yeah, women get the short end on this stick, but it's not, like Cohen says, "the woman’s burden only." How paternalistic and misogynistic is it to think that only women are weak enough to be swayed by advertising in this way?

I think the standard rejoinder at this point from Cohen et al. is that we should draw the line at digital manipultaion because you can do ever so much more digitally than you can without. To this I will only counter that they should consider what the Soviets were capable of doing with actual airbrushes, or what Thomas Barbèy can do with in-camera editing, double exposures, sandwiched negatives, and all manner of other analog trickery.

Is this misconception about the reliability of analog photographs a result of bad semiotics? I got into an argument in one film class I took because the professor thought photographs/film were more reliable, or more real, than either drawings or digital images. She thought analog photographic processes were indexical, and thus more truthful, than iconic or symbolic signifiers like drawing and digital images. She rested this opinion on the fact that photographs are made by the interaction of actual, physical photons and actual, physical film in a chemical process. She ignored the fact that chemical and physical processes also make digital photography possible. Is silver nitrate inherently more honest than the silicon and boron in a CCD?

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