BitDepth#891 - June 25

What an overabundance of retouching may be saying about the relationship between politicians and the public.
Smoothing the lily
The official portrait of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

A photographer makes many choices in the course of a career, each step taking someone pursuing the craft closer or further from their goals, each decision defining a style and approach. Those options are as much defined as much by what we choose not to do as by the paths we choose to follow.

One of those branch points usually comes with digital retouching. Twenty years ago, retouching was an arduous task, reserved only for enormously skilled artists who illustrated far more than they composited.
In 1989, I saw Michael Haynes, then a newly hired management trainee at the Guardian, remove a spot from an image using Photoshop.

That version of the software would be unrecognisable to its users today, but what it could do then was so far removed from physical reality as to be almost magical. Haynes did in 30 seconds what took someone with experience and a steady hand at least five minutes to do.

Ever since, the discussion has not been about what pixel-level editors like Photoshop can’t do, but about what they should.
Retouching takes away more than it gives, though those made more attractive by its magic would probably not see it that way. In smoothing wrinkles, removing warts and pimples and tidying unruly hair, it distances us from individuality and brings us closer to a unified yet quietly impossible imagining of humanity that’s increasingly far removed from any reality we can observe.

I know this because I’ve been retouching photographs for twenty years now and as the tools and techniques have become easier to use and more accessible, the temptation to apply them aggressively becomes ever more seductive.
I own at least one software tool designed to make retouching easier that I’ve stopped using completely. Retouching sessions for me are an exercise in studied restraint, and that product was like riding a maddened buffalypso. We simply couldn’t see eye to pixel.

I’m well aware that this isn’t a popular perspective on the use of retouching tools. Hell, even a casual look at much liked images on Facebook suggest a national fixation with excessive pixel wrangling.
Every other image has super smoothed skin, and eyes that glow like the Goa'uld system lords of television’s Stargate.

There’s a phenomenon in 3D animation called the uncanny valley (
I wrote about that here) which describes the way that the illusion of reality subtly recedes when such animation modelling more closely mimics real human flesh.
It’s why Pixar does cartoony humans and why films like The Polar Express end up looking so creepy. At its most extreme, modern retouching approaches the uncanny valley from the other end, turning human flesh into impossibly perfect pixels.

In that context, it isn’t hard to understand why the official photographs of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and First Lady Reema Harrysingh-Carmona are so mired in this ethos of super processed portrait unreality.
But what do these images say? In this haste to tidy flesh and pin it into digital perfection, what is being lost in our understanding of ourselves and our leadership?

Consider the First Lady, who by any acknowledged standard of feminine beauty, is one of the hottest in the hemisphere. This was a woman who in one of her first major outings alongside her husband, held her own against her opposite number from the People’s Republic of China, Peng Liyuan, herself the image of movie star awesomeness.
To describe her official portrait as gilding the lily is to understate the case by leagues. It begs the question, why.
Really. Why?

Noel Norton’s official portrait of Dr Eric Williams has a remarkable backstory. He once told me about the whole painful exercise, shooting against backlight, trying to wrangle a usable image out of the politician’s irascible diffidence.
The resulting image, which hung on official walls for decades, was rich with the man’s character, itself a testimony of Dr Williams’discomfort with the camera’s ruthless record of reality.

In the years since, official subjects have become more cooperative, seducing the camera’s potential and deflecting its capacity to reveal, culminating in these two formal portraits, which offer likeness and nothing more.
They represent our adoration of image-making over the idea of portraiture, the photograph as identifier with no trace left of identity.
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