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.

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.”