Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Confessions of a Bone Saw Artist

For the better part of a decade I made the bulk of my living in publishing. I worked with tens of thousands of images that, by a conservative estimate, were printed on over 30 billion individual magazine pages. If those pages were laid out flat from top to bottom, they would create a line over 2.7 million miles long, enough paper to stretch to the moon and back 5.5 times, or to circle the entire earth in a double sided 80-foot-wide superhighway of completely disposable full color culture.

In that time I retouched across the spectrum of the magazine industry, from documentary/photojournalism and fine art all the way to fashion and beauty. On the one end working on "straight" photographs with tight restrictions on the retouching, and far on the other end of the spectrum eventually doing major alterations of the female figure, the kind that in real life could only be achieved in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.

This latter kind of retouching I grew to call "bone saw work" for it required reshaping the models in ways that could only be achieved by reforming their skeletons. This included moving eye sockets, raising cheek bones, stretching limbs, lowering foreheads, raising foreheads, narrowing shoulders, shrinking ears, lengthening necks, straightening fingers and toes, reshaping shins and calves, narrowing pelvises and waistlines, shrinking and straightening noses, re-contouring brows and chins, squeezing ribcages, reducing knee caps, and straightening teeth. After that came the retouching to flesh and skin.

For a major project on that end of the retouching spectrum, I might receive an image of a gorgeous young woman that at first glance appeared near perfect. Then, with scrutiny, the flaws begin to emerge. These are not really flaws at all, but are the things that make her an actual living person like the rest of us; nostril hair, a dangling eyelash, a thin spot in her eyebrows, a slight asymetry in the arrangement of her eye sockets, a cleft in her chin, veins in her eyeballs, pores, chin hair, ear lobes, a slight shine from natural oils on her skin, deep clavical indentations, boney shoulders, ligaments in her neck, wrinkled knuckles, chapped lips, chewed fingernails, and so on. In the course of the retouching process the image is slowly, carefully, reshaped into something else entirely.

That original image of a remarkably beautiful young woman will look like a mangled mess once it is compared to the final retouched version. Through the process the image is transformed from a photograph of an actual person with a human body, a name, and a history, into an idealized picture of her that speaks to an unachievable perfection, out of the reach of anyone.

Bone saw work became possible only in the past decade and is becoming more and more prolific throughout the industry. When I started working with Photoshop in 1992, much of the retouching was very surface level and happened pixel by pixel. With each iteration of the program since, powerful new tools have been introduced into the profession and the speed of their introduction has outstripped the industry's ability to stay in control. Reshaping a nose in 1992 was nearly impossible. Now with liquification tools, if you don't like the shape of a nose, you can pick a brush and push it around. In a few seconds the whole character of a face can be altered. The implications of this are profound.

Any serious artist studying the human form must be keenly aware of how the internal structures of the body fill out and influence the figure. A simple and accurate drawing by Rembrandt, for example, depicts the surface features of the body--its skin, hair and so on--but the line accounts also for the location and accuracy of the internal structures as well. Bones, organs, muscle, and fat all combine, each performing their own function, to create the volume of the overall person. Part of what makes the work of the masters so incredible is that we recognize the authenticity of the overall volume of the figures they draw and paint.

Photography quickly allows us to skip this entire body of anatomical knowledge and go straight to mechanized accurate depictions of the body which can be captured in any state of rest or motion, dress or undress, exactly as it appears. No understanding of the body as a whole is required to adequately represent the human body. And generally speaking, the raw photographs start with anatomically accurate information, even if the models being photographed represent a tiny fraction of the body types that make up the human race.

In the retouching though, complete alterations of the figure are routinely practiced, creating an evolving abnormal vision of the body. This results in the ongoing erosion of our visual sense of what is natural. We understand photographs to be depictions of the real, and they are dependent on the real for their source, and yet we are bombarded with images that are retouched in ways that defy nature and establish unachievable visual norms for the human figure.

Much has been written about the negative effects of such retouching. It normalizes perfection and sets standards of comparison that no individual viewer can achieve. Only a tiny fraction of women wear a size two or zero, but by looking at the pages of some magazines, you'd think that was the norm. Presenting the exceptional as the norm puts the average viewer in a position of constant failure to compare to this artificial and synthetic vision of a person floating in front of us, a ghost of what might be possible if only we could find the formula for breaking our own bodies down or apart and reassembling them in this other vision of self. This plays perfectly into the overall business strategies at work in the fashion and beauty industries.

Professor Jeremy Kees at the Villanova School of Business ran a study demonstrating how the skewing of body norms increases the effectiveness of advertising. In his study women were presented with images of skinny models in a commercial setting and were then tested as to how they would respond. The women exposed to the images of overly thin models tested as feeling worse about themselves, but tested with more positive attitudes about the products being sold. Women exposed to normal sized models had no diminished sense of self, but tested with less favorable attitudes to the products being sold. See the logic at work here?

This constant beating down has real consequences for many viewers. One of the most remarkable examples of this can be seen in an image from a recent issue of Glamour Magazine that defeats this process. Many of you will have already seen this image, photographed by Walter Chin. On page 194 of the September issue, in a three inch by three inch photograph, 20 year-old model Lizzi Miller sits on an apple crate in a thong. She leans forward slightly, her arm covering her breasts, a confident and radiant smile on her face. There is a small roll on her belly and actual curves on her legs and arms. At size 12, Lizzi is the size of the average American woman.

That little belly roll is pure rebellion in the fashion and beauty industry, and it's everything as to why this image has had such an incredible effect. Images of Lizzi have been published before, and in each (that I have seen) she is doing what models do, tucking in, tightening, lifting up. Here she appears relaxed and unguarded, and is all the more beautiful for it. Relief and appreciation poured out from readers and can be read in the 1000+ responses posted on Glamour's website.

Equally significant to the reader response is the extreme rarity of a photograph like this in the context of a fashion magazine. To be clear, this image was intentionally created to have this impact on its viewers. As Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leiv says, "We'd commissioned it for a story on feeling comfortable in your skin, and wanted a model who looked like she was." The image isn't rare because it can't be done. It is rare because it is selling something outside of the consumer logic of the fashion and beauty industry.

The stereotypically thin model image serves a very pragmatic purpose in generating an overall climate of desire and consumption that serves the fashion industry at the personal expense of the audience. Lizzi Miller, as she appears on p. 194, defeats this basic exchange between the readers and the advertisers, and the reader responses are permeated with an atmosphere of relief from the pressures to conform and consume. It is also significant to note how far the difference is between talking about body norms and actually showing them.

Here is where it gets really interesting and exciting if you would like to see more of this kind of work. Judging from the comments on the Glamour site, thousands upon thousands of you do.

The magazine publishing industry is in a state of suspension. Trapped between increasing online competition and falling ad dollars due to the recession, many publications are scrambling to figure out what the future holds. If you like, you can read here how a lot of the industry has gotten itself into a serious financial pickle catering to advertisers at your expense. The short of it is this--more than ever, you, the reader, have the power.

You have the power to talk back to the magazines through social media. And you have the one thing that they absolutely must have to survive--your attention. That attention is a commodity that is traded by magazines with advertisers and converted into real dollars. If you withhold your attention, magazines fail. If you lavish it, they thrive.

Two things need to happen soon, and they need to be reader generated.

First, there needs to be a reader generated movement to request magazines to give an honest and full disclosure of their internal retouching policies. The audience has a right to know how the images are being manipulated. Every image receives some form of digital manipulation. Retouching disclosure statements would simply explain in broad terms what a magazine allows and doesn't allow in their image processing.

A reader would be able then to appreciate a magazine with a more clear understanding of what they are looking at. It would also be a commitment from the magazine to its readers to work within a set of self described limits. If even just a few major magazines made a point of communicating their limits to their readers, it would set a precedent in the industry with far reaching implications.

The second thing that needs to happen is going to sound crazy. There needs to be a reader generated campaign to raise subscription rates. Imagine what would happen if the subscribers of a magazine said that they would voluntarily pay more for the magazine if it would give them more quality content of the kind that they want. The publishers would fall off their chairs.

I realize that this seems counter-intuitive, but here is how it works. If you are buying subscriptions on the cheap, the only hope magazines have to make money is from advertisers by selling your attention as a commodity. After all, you aren't really paying for the magazine. But if you are willing to pay more, suddenly you, the reader are starting to pay for the content and the magazine has to work for you, not the advertisers. Remember Kees' study? If you aren't going to pay for those pages, advertisers will, and they will serve their purposes, not yours.

Disclosure: I have never worked for Glamour Magazine. I only identify them by name because they published such an exemplary photograph.


Ian Aleksander Adams said...

Excellent essay, Aric. I'm reposting an excerpt with a link back here.

What you are suggesting doesn't seem counter intuitive to me - I'd certainly be willing to pay more for a high quality publication, especially if that meant I wasn't buying 50% advertisements.

Unfortunately, I'm not really the target demographic for many of these magazines in the first place, so it would be a hard sell for some of them, but I'm happy to spread the word about these ideas.

Aric Mayer said...


Your comment gets right to the heart of the fundamental question here. What is worth paying for, and what isn't?

Is content something worthwhile in it's own right, separate from an advertising economy? It sounds as though you think so, and I do too.

I don't wonder if there isn't a business model that might reverse the trend towards bigger audiences and attempt to focus on a narrow but extremely loyal demographic that is willing to pay.