Sunday, January 4, 2009

You're SO Manipulative

I suspect that many of you are new readers subsequent to my participation in Weddings: The Bridal Show yesterday. Welcome! I occasionally use technical terms in this blog, but try whenever possible to offer definitions at the bottom of the entry. Further, note that not every image on this blog-site is mine, and that such images will be clearly identified in the text. All of my images will have the white "Evan Baines" border. Thanks for reading! I hope that I don't bore you to tears!


Most dictionaries define a portrait simply as a likeness. However, in practice the use of the word "portrait" usually implies an artistic representation of a person in which they are aware of the likeness being made. In cases where the person is unaware that their image is being recorded, one typically uses terms such as "photojournalism" or "candid." For the purposes of this discussion, the word "portrait" will be limited to such applications where the subject is aware of the image-making process.

Physicists discuss a rule referred to as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle*, which may be paraphrased by stating that it is impossible to observe an object without altering it in some manner. This is directly applicable to portraiture in that the moment the subject becomes aware of the camera, a photographer has already manipulated that person's behavior by his presence. Anyone, photographer or otherwise, has observed individuals for whom when the camera appears they put on their "photo face." We all do this to a greater or lesser extent.

Further, despite what one might think, a photographic representation of a scene isn't "picture perfect:" it is only a mediocre representation of what the human eyes observe. The first and most obvious limitation of the medium is that a photograph freezes a fixed view of a moment in time, and lacks any of the motion or surrounding context that our vision provides. Second: our stereoscopic visual system provides an ability to interpret what we see in three dimensions, while a photograph is typically a two dimensional representation of three dimensional space. Thirdly, a typical camera usually only records 6 to 9 f-stops** of information while the human eye is estimated to record 24! A photograph is a recording of reality that has been manipulated by the technical constraints of the medium.

You may be surprised to learn that there was a lively debate among early photographers on whether or not a photograph created an accurate likeness. Even once the initial challenges of the long exposures and optically mediocre equipment were overcome, many photographers found that their portraits simple didn't accurately reflect how they viewed the subject. Only as artists achieved a mature understanding of the medium did they realize that manipulations of lighting, perspective, and pose were actually required to make a person's photograph reflect his or her actual appearance! A modern photographer may choose to flatter a subject, achieve an "accurate" likeness, or even make the subject appear in an unfavorable fashion using focal length***, lighting, posing, composition, makeup, and Photoshop.

It should be established by now that portraiture is, by definition, a manipulative act. However, the type of manipulations that are perhaps the most interesting are those that a photographer uses to elicit a desired appearance from the subject.

There's a humorous story about my hero Richard Avedon in which he was commissioned to photograph the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. However, during the sitting Avedon found the couple to adopt an aloof and unapproachable demeanor. Knowing that the couple was renowned for their love of dogs (more specifically the pugs they bred), Avedon fabricated a story on the spot about his taxi running over a small dog on the way to the sitting. The Duke & Duchess reacted just as Avedon hoped they would, and he snapped a photograph of their slightly distressed appearance. This portrait, while not neccessarily "flattering," humanized a very reserved set of subjects in a remarkable way. The image is probably the only one produced in which the couple dropped their courtly facade, and one can empathize with their distress.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor
Photographed by Richard Avedon in 1957

In another famous moment in portraiture (that I've mentioned on this blog before), Yousuf Karsh famously ripped a cigar from Winston Churchill's mouth to provoke a scowl that became symbolic of British resistance to the Axis Powers in World War II.

Winston Churchill
Photographed by Yousuf Karsh in 1944

My instinct is to celebrate the ingenuity (or some might say audacity) of the photographers in the instances above. In both cases, the manipulation was utilized to elicit a genuine response that accurately reflected an aspect of the subject's character. And importantly, "no dogs (or subjects) were harmed in the making of these photos." However, I'm somewhat less comfortable with Jill Greenberg's methods in obtaining the images of crying children for her "End Times" series. In many cases, a piece of candy was given to the child and then shortly taken away: quite literally taking candy from a baby. No wonder Ms. Greenberg entitles her website: "The Manipulator"

"Torture" from the collection End Times
photograph by Jill Greenberg

While assurances are given that the children were only sucrose-deprived for about thirty seconds, it just seems a little mean to intentionally provoke that level of distress in toddlers, even for the sake of art. Perhaps its a double standard, but I'm much more comfortable with Avedon's slight needling of grown adults who have chosen to be a part of a sitting than this artist's provocation of unsuspecting children. Ms. Greenberg has subsequently received further attention to her manipulations-of-subject for her work during the 2008 Presidential Campaign. While on assignment for The Atlantic to produce a portrait of John McCain, she intentionally created some unflattering "outtakes" to post on her website with anti-McCain slogans.

John McCain
photographed by Jill Greenberg in 2008

Regardless of one's political views, intentionally producing unflattering images of a person of whom she was commisioned to produce a (presumably flattering) likeness is professional malpractice, and ethically bankrupt. The issue here is not that Greenberg created the images: it's that she created them while under a mandate to produce a certain kind of work, and where the subject had made himself available in good faith assuming that every effort would be made to produce a fair image.

Given that manipulation is inevitable in portraiture, the question is NOT whether certain practices are "manipulative," with all of the associated negative connotations. I view the sensitivity and ingenuity that a portraitist evinces during his interactions with his subjects to be a crucial measure of his talent as an artist. The question is whether both the ends and the means of manipulation stand up to moral scrutiny.

*In quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the values of certain pairs of conjugate variables (position and momentum, for instance) cannot both be known with arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one variable is known, the less precisely the other is known. This is not a statement about the limitations of a researcher's ability to measure particular quantities of a system, but rather about the nature of the system itself. (from WikiPedia)

**An f-stop is a photographic term that is used to describe how bright something is. In this context, I am using it to describe the difference between the lightest and darkest things in a scene. Have you ever wondered why you can see a person in front of a sunset perfectly, but when you take the picture either the person is black or the sky is white?

***Focal length refers to how far away the lens "sees." A short focal length gives you a wide-angle view, and a long focal length is referred to as telephoto, which sees far away. By using lens selection, a photographer may stand either close to or far from a subject, which changes the way they are rendered in the camera.
Certain focal lengths may make a subject look tall or short, fat or thin.


amydale said...

an excellent write up, evan.
it challenges me to evaluate my role, responses, and initiations as a photographer.

Mark McCoy said...

Evan....Yes, I am very surprised to learn that there was a lively debate among early photographers on whether or not a photograph created an accurate likeness. I've never looked a photo and thought it looked exactly like my eye's perception of the subject. Isn't it obvious that a camera is not a human eye? Both sides of the early photographers' debate would have been interesting, yet moot. Thanks for sharing that slice of photography history.