Thursday, July 14, 2005

Tarred with a Different Brush

Photographic trickery is nearly as old as photography itself. Almost as soon as the pioneers of the craft managed to pin reality down, they were filled with the longing to fuck around with it.

Sometimes it was out of necessity. For example, long exposures meant you couldn't always catch objects in motion, so sometimes they had to be painted in. My favorite example of this is a 19th-century shot of a chuck-wagon cook flipping a pancake that was obviously added in post-production.

And I think it was in no way accidental that the emergence of retouching processes coincided with a huge surge in the popularity of portrait photography.

This has raised all sorts of ethical questions about how much a print can or should be messed with. There is no answer, and never will be, just lots of debate. As with other arts, there are no rules, only talent and taste or a lack thereof.

On the one hand, you have Henri Cartier-Bresson, an undisputed genius who didn't crop or otherwise heavily manipulate his photographs in printing. What showed up on the negative was what showed up in the print. And then you have Ansel Adams, another titan, who used the darkroom creatively to do things to his images that brought them to the finished state his vision demanded.

Who's right? Both of 'em.

But with the arrival of digital photography and Adobe Photoshop on the scene, post-production work has been made seamless and relatively simple to the point that you should never, never fully trust any photograph you didn't take and print yourself. For example, the latest version of Photoshop has a nifty tool called the "healing brush" that makes it possible to remove zits, wrinkles, sweat, and (if you're not careful) nostrils in four seconds flat.

But you have to draw the line somewhere, and designers and photographers are often called upon to manipulate reality in ways that are laughable, impossible, or even unethical.

For example, my employer is (like many institutions of higher learning) desperate to promote itself as a place that embraces diversity, particularly among the student body.

Before anybody angrily clicks the "Comment" button, let me say flatly that I support diversity initiatives. Although Arab-Americans aren't considered a separate ethnic minority unless it's a matter of racial profiling at airports, I doubt extremely I'd have been let into Harvard if at some point there hadn't been a push to add mixers to the gene pool.

Unfortunately, progress is slow. The university I work for catered during most of its history to the offspring of well-to-do Midwesterners, and didn't much care whether they were smart as long as they could afford the shockingly high tuition.

Needless to say, for century or more this place (like, I should add in all fairness, most American colleges of the time) was as white as an Olsen twin's pert little bottom. It's changing*, but we still have a long way to go.

That sad reality is a recurring thorn in the side of those who fashion the school's public image though visual design. I'm often called upon to photograph events hosted my department, and more than once I get a frantic reminder that "We need really diverse shots."

Recently I photographed a student picnic and, if I may so, it went well. We had extremely cooperative weather (an overcast sky, which lit everyone flatteringly) and the students were (shhh) already tipsy upon arrival, so they were inclined to cooperate with the poor sap with the camera.

The one criticism? I hadn't got enough shots of mixed groups. In frame after frame, white kids sat with white kids, African-Americans hugged only other African-Americans. You had an occasional wildcard Asian-American or Latino/a, but not enough to make the critic in question happy.

And why had I done this? Because I took pictures of the groups as they were, rather than shouting, "Okay, you - with the blonde hair - would you please step away? Thank you. Alright, I need a Black woman over on the left, and one more Asian for the front row. You're a Pacific Islander? Sorry, not close enough. But would you please go stand next to the Muslim woman in the headscarf for the next shot?"

A dear colleague of mine got similar complaint when she used a large, stock photo of a crowd as the background for a print piece. It had a mix of just about every age and race you can think of, and in proportions similar to those found in our student body, but it didn't appear diverse enough to one person in the approval loop. With time short and no other photo to be had, she had to resort to counting the number of "diverse" people in the print in order to prove it could be used.

And not long before that, another designer here had been slammed for using an all-white photograph on a reunion postcard for a class that had graduated 30-40 years ago. The person who complained didn't care that the entire university had, at the time, about four non-white students. The closest thing to a decent mixed photograph of the class in question? A shot of the final tableau of the senior show, featuring an entire chorus line in blackface. No, thank you.

It was then that we hit upon the idea of a new Photoshop tool that would be a boon to designers everywhere: the diversity brush.

The concept is simple. Just select the tool, click the appropriate box, and paint over the face in question. Poof! The girl from the Marshall Islands is now Norwegian. Click! Brad McGillicuddy of Ames, Iowa is now Rafael Sanchez-Montoya of Bogota, Colombia.

Simple, isn't it? No need to accept and admit the racist history of the school. No need to continue efforts to encourage students of all races to apply, attend, and (gasp) speak to each other. No need for the client to grapple with reality - just repaint reality to suit their needs.

Every designer I know would sell a kidney to get a copy.

You geniuses at Adobe, you're probably already two years ahead of us and at work on this feature for the next release. But just in case, please remember you read it here first. You can pay us in free software and fonts.

*I mean the school is changing. I'm not sure about the bottoms, separately or together, of the Olsen twins, and have no desire to learn more.


Anonymous said...

I know just what you mean. If you look at any advertising or media you will see one of each race....even on Barney.
I live in a town where there is probably one black guy and he is married to a white woman, so you can imagine the diversity here! (and they moved here from out of town!) LOL. Or maybe not so funny -- you can't make neighborhoods mixed, or races and religion be friends - anti-segregation in the 60's didn't work then and doesn't work now - is tolerance what we should be preaching? EEEEhhh...what do I know. After all I am a blonde, blue eyed white woman...what do I know?? We are an ethnic group all to our selves --blondes.

Anonymous said...

Franklin - My two girls get published in a lot of the local park district stuff. Also library things and probably when they start school, the shcool newsletter as well.

I like to say it is because we are involed in a lot of different programs and my girls are breathtakingly gorgeous... which they are.

But I know the truth of the matter is that they are Asian and they 'fit the bill' on the diversity card.

Now if I could just find a way to collect money for this, I could get their college educations funded.

goblinbox said...

Brilliant idea! Do tell Adobe.

Anonymous said...

The best use of photoshop I've seen is this Glenn Feron guy. The site is pretty slow, and I doubt the very first image, I think it went the other direction, from good to bad, but his work is scary. He doesn't spend much time on boys though, so I doubt I'd pay him for a touch up for my personal ad photos. :)

Here's the link?

Anonymous said...

You went to Harvard? I worked at Harvard for five years, publishing all sorts of "diverse" stuff...

I would elaborate on my comment, but I am too busy trying to restore my nostrils.

Anonymous said...

Oh, oops, and I'm also too busy looking at this link that Mattie provided for Glenn Feron. My god. Real women have cellulite. I should just have a permanent photoshop filter follow me around all day...

Ann said...

I work at a small community college and I immediately identified with the new idea for a photoshop tool. I have been asked more than once to include more diversity in my photos. Not easy when each classroom I walk into shows no diversity at all.

Susan said...

Woah. The Glenn Feron site Mattie linked to is...difficult to adequately describe. I sat mezmerized, moving my mouse onto the pictures, off of the pictures, onto the pictures, off of the pictures. Hypnotic. Insane. Unfair! Try it if you haven't. It's crazy.

Unknown said...

I just love when the perception of an idea is more important than reality. This un-whitewashing of promotional pictures has become laughable, and I foresee in the future a day when these types of staged photos will be as laughable as the added pancake in the historical photograph.

Anonymous said...

Hey! knitted hats off to you, my brother! This is definitely one of the more intelligent, well written blogs I've seen. Fabulous!

I am fortunate to live in an actual mixed, and I MEAN MIXED neighborhood–all racial groups represented, eight different
languages spoken, all religions, atheists, interracial couples of all groups, Gay, Lesbian and Trannsexual families, straight families, singles, seniors, every damn body. And guess what? We don't just tolerate each other. We actually get along. I'm scared to post this, 'cause folks might start messing with our peace. It ain't perfect, it's in the Bronx, New York (forget what you've heard. Ask me instead, I'm a native).

You can get people to mix, once you stop discrimination in urban planning. Ancestors, don't get me started.

Nomad said...

I go to a University in England, a secondary campus with a student population of about 1500, including about 30 international students (most of whom, like myself, are graduate students). When the time came to take the photographs for next year's undergraduate prospectus for that campus, scheduled it conveniently during spring break, and only inited the international students to the shoot. So we show up for the supposed 4-hour shoot, and they take several African and Chinese students down to shoot on the beach and ask the rest of us to come back in three hours to shoot the cover. At that time they set us up in a classroom and spaced us out so that we looked like a semi-plausible group of students, then took shots for an hour. When the prospectus came out it was a beautiful picture--of my friend Johan, who is Swedish but looks Indian. It had been cropped so that only about four students total showed, with everyone else blurred into near unrecognizability besides Johan. Yes, he's gorgeous (, but the most important part to them was the color of his skin in that very-very-English-white environment, not how smart he is.

birdfarm said...

I live on the edge of a mostly-white tiny little town (pop. around 1500). I don't know a lot of people, so I can't get more specific with the following, but there are definitely a lot of darker-complected families here, also at least two same-sex couples, and everyone's pretty mellow about it as far as I can tell.

You can't make people mix, but I also think people actually mix pretty naturally if there's nothing stopping them.

So when they're not mixing, it might make sense to ask, what's stopping them?

There was a huge scandal at UW-Madison when the student prospectus cover showed a football game crowd shot and a Black student had been Photoshopped in. (They made the mistake of using an actual UW student, so he saw himself on the cover and knew damn well he had never been to a football game).

At the time there was an attempt (not sure how successful) to point out that the problem wasn't the photoshopping, the problem was that there are so extraordinarily few students of any color at UW-Madison that there are (as Franklin points out, quite naturally) very few pictures of said students.

You could come up with all kinds of reasons for the lack of diversity. Here's one story: last year a Navajo Indian student from New Mexico left in the middle of the year. This was after he was beaten on the street, for the second time, by people yelling racial slurs (he wore his hair long in a braid, which helped people jump to conclusions about his ethnicity). Also after months of his attempts to get his RA or anyone at all to deal with the fact that a few people in his dorm were making his life hell.

This all had something to do with a contentious local election about a casino treaty, but as the young man was from New Mexico, that had nothing to do with him.

Any surprise that other Indian/Native American students left at the end of the year?

Point being, we (people of pallor, I mean) might assume there are no barriers to "diversity," but we might not always know what kind of barriers actually do exist....

Just some food for thought.

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