June 28, 2008

Color Me Impossible

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I was aimlessly web surfing my way through the boredom of a summer internship when I came across the article, “Pixel Perfect”, published in The New Yorker last month. It outlined the lifestyle and works of Pascal Dangin, a professional photograph retoucher. As a Photoshop-guru-in-training myself, I decided Dangin basically has my dream job. He works with top fashion designers, world-famous photographers and a-list celebs, taking seemingly flawless people and images and making them even more perfect, all with the click of a mouse or the wave of the magic wand tool.

Midway through the article, Dangin offhandedly comments on his retouching job for the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty ad, which he claims was “great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.”

I can relate to this. One year for my friend’s birthday, I made her a photo card and tried to photoshop an authentic Caribbean tan on for her. She turned out looking like a mutant doll molded out of chocolate shortbread with freakishly white teeth. I sent it to her anyway because it turned out to be a funny attack on her vanity. Moral of the story though: It’s hard enough to enhance photos of inanimate objects without making it look fake, but on a human it’s near impossible, which is why people like Dangin are held with the highest respect.

Anyway, after this initial thought, I processed the second interesting facet of this quotation more clearly: Re-touching? For the the Campaign for Real Beauty? Uhh, doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose? The Dove campaign later denied any major retouching on the bodies of the women, but there was some minor retouching of the images nonetheless. To me, the very fact that these women weren’t being represented as their true selves, that the images had been modified digitally at all—even if it was just a “minor color correction” or removal of a spot of dust on the film—undermined the core value that Dove was trying to express.

But really, what did I expect? This was a nation-wide, multi-million dollar ad campaign not only for beauty but for the Dove brand as well. Of course these regular people had been digitally altered, even if only minimally. Of course they were wearing some makeup, ever so immaculately applied as to imply naturalness rather than perfection. Of course they had been photographed by professionals, who knew the exact angles to photograph from so the models looked their best. Of course these people had been enhanced—that is the artistry of the campaign.

Because what Pascal Dangin does, what all digital enhancers, graphic designers, photographers, painters, sketchers and sculptors do, is depict reality from a certain point of view. Inevitably, there is no such thing as a photograph that does not have some sort of opinion behind it—these fashion ads aren’t unbiased snapshots of reality, but illustrations. And the Dove ad campaign is an illustration of the fact that real people can be beautiful too, even if the photos needed to be tweaked here and there to get the point across.

Still, while the Dove ad campaign may have been less enhanced or more enhanced than Dangin or Dove reps let on, it brings us to the heart of an idealistic debate: Photo retouching is controversial because it is a different art than painting or drawing—and that is because people still tend to associate photographs with cold hard facts, with what actually is. We understand that Barbie is a doll. We understand that Princess Jasmine’s impossibly tiny waist is drawn. But when I look in a magazine and see a long-legged model with her sky-high cheekbones and razor-edged hipbones, it’s very difficult for me to remember that this girl doesn’t look quite like that in real life.

In the “Pixel Perfect” article, Dangin reminds us that fashion photography “is not reality—it’s about drawing people toward an ideal vision.” He’s right. But as Dangin transforms Madonna’s biceps into willowy limbs, shaves away at Kate Winslet’s already-miniscule waist and redoes a model’s ass because it’s “quite heavy” (but I’m pretty sure if she was a model her ass was fine), is it okay for him to promote this ideal vision when it’s parading around in society like a true-to-life photograph? Is it okay that these are the pictures that girls hang on their refrigerators to remind themselves not to eat, unaware of the fact that even the model herself is not that skinny in real life? Was it really okay for a digital enhancer to go anywhere near the Dove ad campaign?

As a designer myself, I am well aware of the fact that what Dangin does for a living is a form of art. On the other hand, where do you draw the line between freedom of expression and something that is harmful to society? Like warning labels accompanying the lies of cigarette ads, should there be warning signs bannered across the bottom of fashion ads? Would that even change anything? I really don’t know. But with eating disorders becoming a global trend, thinspiration popping up all over the Internet and the increasing glamorization of self-inflicted hunger, it’s just some food for thought.