”Dude, her head’s bigger than her pelvis.”
Published: Friday, October 09, 2009
That is how the latest flap about distorted body image in fashion started last week. The blog Photoshop Disasters regularly singles out anatomically improbable contortions and bad use of Photoshop; last week they posted an image from Ralph Lauren Blue Label’s recent ad campaign starring regular Lauren model Filippa Hamilton, an already-skinny model whose waistline was whittled so tiny she appears warped next to her elastic limbs. The heavily-trafficked pop culture site Boing Boing picked it up and added the aforementioned comment. Short and simple, it said it all.
Initially, fashion juggernaut Polo Ralph Lauren took the offensive and, citing copyright infringement, fired off a cease-and-desist order demanding the image be taken down. By Thursday, and notably after they were beaten back with a spirited defence of “fair use” and drubbing in the court of Internet opinion, Polo had recanted and issued this statement: “For over 42 years we have built a brand based on quality and integrity. After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately.”
Notice Polo Ralph Lauren’s careful, astute choice of words — the vocabulary of artistic freedom. “Poor imaging?” Certainly. But “caliber of artwork?” Come on.
In 1994, Time magazine was fined after illustrator Matt Mahurin blurred and darkened the colour saturation of O.J. Simpson’s skin colour from a police photo, making him appear blacker and more sinister. Last year, L’Oreal Paris denied widespread speculation that they had lightened spokesmodel Beyoncé’s skin in photographs to appear a few shades paler in Feria hair colour ads (the accusation being that by being whiter, Beyoncé’s racial identity would therefore be watered down and more appealing to the masses).
In England in 2007, L’Oreal Paris was officially reprimanded by that country’s Advertising Standards Authority for a misleading ad campaign starring Penélope Cruz that claimed the featured product lengthened eyelashes up to 60% (Cruz wore false lashes in the ad) rather than that it made eyelashes appear 60% longer.
Ms. Hamilton’s shape in the latest Lauren ads, while physically possible, is not recommended. And it probably promotes distorted and negative body image in teen girls and children. But here’s where things get sticky: Ralph Lauren’s ad doesn’t claim that wearing their jeans and ruffled madras top would make the wearer, um, weirdly skinny like the model in the photo.
It is interesting that the topic has resurfaced the very same week the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has decided to apply the transparency of full disclosure — a sort of truth-in-advertising — standards to bloggers and social network users when they write. One could argue that the same should be the case for fashion photographs: No alternation beyond cropping, sharpening and a few basic saturation and contrast adjustments. In France, French MP Valerie Boyer wants to slap a warning label on such images to combat their perceived endorsement of negative body image and eating disorders. She has proposed a bill that would require retouched photos published for either editorial or advertising purposes to bear a disclaimer alerting consumers to that fact (and impose fines of €37,500 for companies and magazines who don’t).
Perhaps Ms. Boyer could look to the U.S. National Press Photographers Association’s ethical guidelines, #6 of which is helpful: “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subject.” The NPAA prohibits even the removal of undesirable objects or elements in photographs — warts, zits and all.
The ethics of digital photo manipulation is more important because the abuses are all the more rampant, whether it’s making Sarkozy look as good as Obama does on vacation (as Paris Match did when they airbrushed Sarko’s love handles until they disappeared) or Prada smoothing the skin of models legs so they appear plastic or waxen in ads, like a mannequin’s. The former is dubiously “news;” the latter can claim artistic intentions. The problem is that fashion editorials and glossy magazine covers are neither visual journalism nor art, but at the same time, they’re both.
And advertising, well that’s another story. Twiggy’s line-free face in British ads for Olay Definitely was roundly criticized, especially when she was snapped that very week out and about, looking every bit her 59 years, wrinkles and all (I’d say the same of Sharon Stone in Christian Dior’s Capture Totale anti-ageing skin care ads).
Did the late Irving Penn use Photoshop? Would his Dovima with the Elephants be less interesting if it were a composite, rather than a location shoot where both Dovima and the elephants posed together, in the moment, at the Cirque d’Hiver? Probably. You could make an aesthetic argument that Edward Steichen’s iconic 1928 portrait of Greta Garbo would be less memorable if he had smoothed out the almost imperceptible furrow on her brow with virtual Botox, or removed the few stray frizzy strands from the part of her hair.
Yet another of Steichen’s famous photographs, The Pond-Moonlight photograph, was developed over a hundred years ago. To achieve the particular quality of light, Steichen himself applied light-sensitive gums to the film by hand to enhance the original effect. And consider Penn’s contemporary, the fashion photographer Lillian Bassman. Even in the 1950s her experimental photographs were as much about light and composition as artistic effects (like visible grain scarring) achieved in the darkroom using techniques like staining and bleaching. For Bassman, now 92 and still working, Photoshop is not a four-letter word. She has switched from analog to digital and readily admits to toying with and manipulating her present and even past work to enhance it.
American celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz is not a photojournalist. She has a penchant for composites, to the point that many of her recent group portraits and photographs look more like paintings than photographs. Her recent official portrait of the Queen was taken in a drawing room but superimposed on a pond landscape so it appears to be taken outside, unnatural and vampiric. But at least it looks less painfully awkward than her new November Vogue cover. Leibovitz clearly built the final photograph digitally — the perspective, proportion and lighting of the four actresses seems off, as does the absence of shadows.
This kind of digital manipulation is misleading if we think of photographs as a documentary record of history and not art. And often, it’s ugly. But unless it’s in an ad that makes claims, it will be nearly impossible to outlaw.
At least Adobe, always quick to remind us that Photoshop is a registered brand trademark and should not do the work of a verb, can rest easy. L’affaire Ralph has spawned a new terminology. The latest hall of shame entry on Photoshop Disasters is of a model’s fingers laced together, grotesquely misshapen by digital manipulation: “Mega Magazine in the Philippines manages to totally Ralph Lauren their cover.”