Perusing the New York Times this morning, I came across another piece about the idea that digitally altered photographs for advertising should be labeled as having been retouched. The idea is that if we’re told that a photo of a model isn’t “real” then we might not feel as bad about our real-world physical flaws and quirks. France has a law on the table that, if passed, would require all retouched photos to carry a disclaimer, just as tobacco companies have to explicitly print on their product that it is extremely hazardous to health.
This brings me back to a photography exhibit I saw a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York called “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.” Over 120 ‘spiritualist’ photographs were pulled together beginning from the 1860s depicting ghosts visiting the living, physical manifestations of thoughts, dreams and feelings, and spirits appearing in seances. The photographs, though stunning, are fake. They were made by manipulating a wet photographic plate, but appeared in newspapers, journals and parlors across the country as evidence of ghosts and spirits. William Mumler, generally regarded as the pioneer of spirit photography, made a fortune selling these photos, but lost it all to legal costs incurred during the 1869 trial accusing him of fraud. The charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence by the prosecution, though the judge claimed he believed the photos were indeed fraudulent. Still, spirit photography continued for many more decades. The point here is that, almost from the dawn of photography itself, people have been manipulating images with no disclaimer.
How different are Mumler’s photographs from digitally altered advertising photographs of today? In both cases, an image is produced that is meant to inspire emotion of some sort in the viewer. That image is then sold to the masses, who may or may not think to ask questions about how such an image is made. Virtually all photos taken today are retouched in some way, whether to correct red-eye, brighten colors, correct skin tone or alter lighting. Many of these photos hang in museums as pieces of priceless art. The question is, where do we draw the line–should digitally altered still lifes also carry a label stating that they were touched up? And, when looking at a picture of an impossibly beautiful person, would a label really keep you from beating yourself up because you don’t look like the Photoshopped model? Ultimately, the label only scratches the surface of what really should be done, which is to educate people about how and why media images are made.