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"

After The New York Times Magazine used nonstandard film to shoot a 2006 cover picture of Virginia Governor Mark Warner, the publication apologized because the film altered the photo’s colors, making Warner’s gray suit appear maroon. But critics objected not only to the artificial colors but to what seemed like a deliberately unnatural and disturbing image of the governor, one that Gawker described as giving “off that smarmy politician vibe that made you turn over the magazine on your coffee table so you didn’t have to keep looking at him.”

Every portrait is inherently false: a static, two-dimensional representation of an ever-changing, three-dimensional face. And accuracy is not the same thing as truth. Even without deliberate distortions, a still photo captures distractions that the mind edits out. Some retouching is nothing more than recreating on paper the image held in memory—removing, for instance, a bit of red from McCain’s eyes or a stray eyebrow hair from Newsweek’s Palin picture.

Like atypically good lighting, such manipulation is designed to create a “truer,” more representative image by omitting quirks of the moment. “When I did my self-portrait,” said Andy Warhol. “I left all the pimples out because you always should. Pimples are a temporary condition and they don’t have anything to do with what you really look like. Always omit the blemishes—they’re not part of the good picture you want.” An “objective” candid shot can be as biased as a heavily retouched photograph.

Candid shots are particularly perilous for people with animated faces, who illustrate their speech with bulging eyes or distorted mouths. In person, they look lively and entertaining. But, in between more flattering expressions, they produce a lot of strange shots. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s enemies have no trouble finding silly photos of her, while Barack Obama’s foes must make do with shots in which the candidate isn’t gazing glamorously upward. Obama’s cool countenance makes weird candid shots less common.

As Hillary Clinton can attest, a good portrait is not a random selection of what the camera sees, with no subjective input from human observers. A good portrait offers not mechanical objectivity but what the historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison in their 2007 book Objectivity call “truth to nature,” the standard Enlightenment naturalists used in their scientific atlases. “They conceived of fidelity,” write Daston and Galison, “in terms of the exercise of informed judgment in the selection of ‘typical,’ ‘characteristic,’ ‘ideal,’ or ‘average’ images: all these were varieties of the reasoned image.”

Like an 18th-century atlas maker illustrating a species of lily, portraiture chooses one image at one moment to stand for the complexities of a personality and a life. That’s why partisans are vigilant about biased selection. They know that an editor can craft an impression just by picking the right—or wrong—picture. When we select our own photos, we choose the most attractive ones not only because we want others to think of us that way, but because we want to believe that others see us as we’d like to see ourselves. We like to think that even between takes we look our best.

A reasoned image is true, even if—in fact, because—it excludes the accidental details of the moment. Flattering portraits go further, transforming the characteristic into the ideal without losing sight of the truth. In the early 17th century, Ferdinando Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, praised a portrait of his wife Caterina de’ Medici in words that might guide today’s retouchers. “You have depicted her better than any other,” he wrote to Alessandro Tiarini, “since you have improved and embellished her looks without diminishing her likeness.”

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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