Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why I don't buy the argument for magazine cover photo retouching

One of the most interesting issues that has cropped up in recent years has been the debate over the ethics of airbrushing and retouching the artwork and photos that appear on the cover of a magazine.

I've been watching the debate with great anticipation, because I feel that it's a bit of a make-or-break issue for magazine publishing. I don't believe too much will change in the short-term, but I do believe it will establish more concrete boundaries as to what is and isn't acceptable in terms of modifying artwork.

Many magazines have come under fire for choosing to heavily modify their cover subjects, who are usually celebrities: Vogue, Glamour, Marie Claire, InStyle, Shape and even Self (irony of ironies!) have all been called out for a gratutious "we'll fix it in post [-production]" attitude.

Heading the effort is snarky women's blog Jezebel, whose "Photoshop of Horrors" series documents various magazine efforts to, well, hide the truth.

But how true should the truth be in a women's interest or fashion magazine?

The criticism grew so great for a recent Self cover depicting Kelly Clarkson as thinner than she really is -- a big deal, since part of Clarkson's image is the rags-to-riches theme that she's an average (and average-sized) girl who made it big based on that uniquely American potion of talent, merit and moxie -- that the magazine's editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger felt the need to address the issue in a blog post on the mag's web site.

Here are some highlights from her lengthy response:

Pictures are meant to tell a story, express a feeling, convey an emotion or capture a moment. Portraits like the one we take each month for the cover of SELF are not supposed to be unedited or a true-to-life snapshot.


Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best. Did we publish an act of fiction? No.


This is art, creativity and collaboration. It's not, as in a news photograph, journalism. It is, however, meant to inspire women to want to be their best. That is the point.


Kelly says she doesn't care what people think of her weight. So we say: That is the role model for the rest of us.


Think about your photographs and what you want them to convey. And go ahead and be confident in every shot, in every moment. Because the truest beauty is the kind that comes from within.

If I may be so bold: does this not reek of excuses?

Allow me to address these points individually:

  • Danziger first defends the edits on their face by declaring that Self isn't supposed to be "true-to-life." Somewhat hypocritical given the magazine's title, but the most legitimate point in defending this practice for magazines.

  • But then she backtracks: We only did it to make her look "her personal best." That's impossible, because there's no way of reproducing a Photoshop job in real life. Her skin will not get unblemished. Her hips will not thin the way you've crafted them. Her teeth will not whiten so evenly. There's nothing personal about it.

  • Worse, that reason allows that the magazine assumes responsibility for Clarkson's physical appearance. Last time I checked, she's a public figure -- meaning she (and her publicist) are the ones in control of how she appears in public. That's the cost of being famous. That's your primary job: representing yourself. If she's not at her "personal best" at the time of the shoot, is it really your job as a publisher to pick up the pieces? (And, if you're into back-door dealing, is it really fair for a publicist to withhold their client because she can't manage her own image?)

  • By Self allowing image edits on Clarkson's figure under the excuse of Clarkson "looking her personal best," it allows that the magazine is now a part of Clarkson's public relations team. A thin line that all magazines straddle to be sure, but not something I'd readily admit to as an editor.

  • Danziger then tries to compare the edits to journalism. No one's criticizing their work based on the accuracy guidelines for war photos from Iraq. To me, Danziger is defending her decision on the basis of an issue that has not been legitimately raised.

  • Danziger then admits that Clarkson doesn't care, and uses that as an excuse to alter the photo. Again, hypocritical -- especially in light of the "personal best" reason (so we're kissing up to her!) and the following one, below.

  • Danziger finishes with a dashed off, clichéd line about how "true beauty" comes "from within." Besides the fact that the phrase rings empty, it still flies in the face of the effort, time and budget spent to modify Clarkson's photograph.

Jezebel's criticism is based in the implication of an ethical boundary that has been crossed: women should not be fooled into thinking or idolizing something that is not possible in the physical world, and anything less than 99% truth is ethically reprehensible.

But it's not the ethical issue of representing women on covers for readers to look up to that bothers me the most. What's really aggravating is that no publishing professional has owned up to the real reason: a better-looking magazine sells more on the newsstand.

(And the unspoken inference: rightly or wrongly, the majority of people find thinner women more attractive. And "more attractive" is always a way to sell more magazines.)

Why is it so hard to just respond to criticism that way? If the decision is made not on the basis of ethics or representation or idealistic idolatry among readership, why not defend it on that ground?

(Certainly no one's holding Danziger's feet to the flames for mere color-correction.)

For sure, it's unfair that Danziger is being singled out in this post (and others) for her response. Self is hardly the worst offender of this practice. But her attempt to defend herself just fell flat to me.

The calling card of most general interest magazines is not their hard-hitting articles or their ethical rigidity. It's their ability to entertain. They are vehicles for leisure, and they convey that spirit through layout and design.

A magazine without that isn't a magazine at all, the way I see it. And at the end of the day, magazine publishing is a business. Period.

So why defend it any other way?

Update: Looks like Self entertainment assistant Ashley Mateo gets it. Amid meaningless fluff, she writes:

"Magazines don't hide the fact that they're always trying to sell issues--and to sell copies, you need to appeal to readers with the best writing and the best images possible."

Perhaps the corner office is too insulating?

Update 2: Jezebel's Margaret posted her own analysis.


Lisa Romeo said...

What you said. Exactly.

The Editorialiste said...

If you're interested in what goes on behind the scenes with magazine photo retouching, check out "Pixel Perfect," a lengthy profile in The New Yorker about retoucher Pascal Dangin's work for some of the biggest names in publishing.

The Ed.