Dispatch October 2008

The Politics of the Retouched Headshot

"In an image-savvy culture, we’re increasingly forced to consider just what constitutes a valid portrait"

Last week, Fox News set off a short-lived controversy when it attacked Newsweek for not retouching the magazine’s larger-than-life cover photo of Sarah Palin. Calling the headshot “ridiculously unfair to her,” anchor Megyn Kelly declared that “any respectable magazine should be doing a little retouching.”

         Demanding that a news magazine manipulate photos in order to remain “respectable” may seem odd, all the more so since Governor Palin looks quite attractive in the photograph. But the criticism reveals more than ratings-plumping partisan grievance. In an image-savvy culture, we’re increasingly forced to consider just what constitutes a valid portrait. The way most of us instinctively answer the question demonstrates the difference between objectivity and truth.

Consider the apolitical act of selecting a personal headshot: a bridal photo, a website image, an author portrait. You don’t just face the camera and accept the first photo that come out. That’s for driver’s licenses, mug shots, and security badges—the ID photos most people find not only embarrassing but somehow untrue. At the very least, you want to choose a shot where your eyes are open, your smile looks genuine, and your cowlick is under control.

If strangers’ snap judgments matter, you go for a bit more artifice. Take an attractive single friend of mine. When she moved to Los Angeles, she signed up with an online dating service, using a handy snapshot to illustrate her profile. She got no inquiries. Then she hired one of the many local photographers who specialize in actors’ headshots. With exactly the same profile information but a more professional photo, my friend was suddenly inundated with emails from prospective dates. She didn’t even use retouching or special makeup. The difference she says, “was the lighting, the camera angles, plus the sheer volume of shots.” She had hundreds to choose from.

Partisans demand that magazine portraits glamorize their heroes for the same reason my friend hired a professional photographer. Humans seem hard-wired to assume that good-looking means good and, conversely, to equate physical flaws with character flaws. We may preach that beauty is skin deep, but we’re equally certain that portraits “reveal character.” In a media culture, we not only judge strangers by how they look but by the images of how they look. So we want attractive pictures of our heroes and repulsive images of our enemies.

Consider a recent political controversy involuntarily involving this magazine. After taking a series of shots for a conventional cover portrait of John McCain, Jill Greenberg tricked the candidate into having a picture taken in which she lit him from below, a classic technique to make the subject look evil. Neither the candidate nor his staff noticed that the photographer had literally cast McCain in a bad light. “I guess they’re not very sophisticated,” she told the online magazine PDN, boasting further that she hadn’t retouched the neutral shot she sold The Atlantic. “I left his eyes red and his skin looking bad,” she said.

As this story illustrates, having a portrait taken for publication demands a great deal of trust in the competence and good will of the photographer and photo editor. Greenberg deceived not only McCain but The Atlantic, which objected strenuously to the abuse of trust. But suppose the magazine had been in on the ruse. Does a portrait subject have a reasonable expectation of normal lighting?

Most people would say yes. In fact, except for professional models, photo subjects generally expect the wedding album standard to apply: Photos should look realistic, but as attractive as possible. Anything else, whatever artistic justification the photographer or editor may put forward, feels like an ambush. Nobody voluntarily agrees to an unappealing portrait.

Presented by

Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor. She has a new blog at deepglamour.net. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.

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