Palin Cover: A Photographer’s View

Laurie says:

I’m back and having my usual re-entry problems. Lots of beach, redwoods, and almost no web for ten days will do that.

I just read Debbie’s post on the Newsweek cover of Sarah Palin, and the comments to that post. I’ve spent the better part of the last twenty years taking portraits with a strong sense of reality. So it’s not surprising that the topic got me thinking about photography choices, image size, cropping, retouching etc – in effect how we react to portraits.

Regardless of other reactions, this photo of Palin would be a real attention-grabber simply because we don’t see photos like this. I am wondering if it’s truly untouched, rather than subtly altered. I find it hard to believe that an art editor would be able to be completely hands off. And more to the point, we’re so unused to seeing any “flaws” in media images that some reality will seem almost super real. Even in Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, the photos of the women were subtly touched up to be real but not too real.

“I know I am grossly oversimplifying your great analysis here, but I feel relieved when I see pictures like that of politicians. While I do know there are age limits in place already, I certainly want mature adults running our government. I don’t want a politician, male or female, who looks like CGI or a blowup doll. Also, it’s humanizing.” –SJ

I think SJ’s reaction is interesting. We are seeing a relatively real image of a woman with maturity showing in her portrait. It should be ludicrous that not removing signs of maturity in the face a woman, politician or not, is considered insulting. And I agree with her that the reality of the image is humanizing.

Then there’s the crop – i.e. the choice to show part of her face in close up. I thought Adrian’s comment was really relevant.

“Intimate conversation usually happens when people are about arms-length apart. When a camera is that far away from somebody’s face, and the image looks natural and realistic, it can feel something like an intimate conversation. Most of the campaign images seem to be taken from either stage distance or conversation distance. This one looks so strange because it’s so much closer–only part of the face fits in the field of view, like the viewer is coming in for a kiss, instead of conversation. Even though it was probably taken with a telephoto lens, it’s an illusion of intimacy that feels off.”
— Adrian

There’s a lot happening here. We do like our politicians to be human but we also want them to be heroic. The photo Deb chose of the Newsweek cover of Hillary Clinton is a good example of that. In contrast, there is nothing heroic in this image of Palin.

From a photographic perspective, the size of the Palin portrait is borderline for intimacy. When you show faces larger than their actual size, images tend to lose their sense of intimacy and become distanced. But as Adrian says, the way in which the focus is closer than we’re used to creates a different kind of intimacy. Not the intimacy of recognition but rather of physical closeness. Her welcoming smile makes a big difference. If she had a serious expression, we’d experience a lot more distance.

I’m not even bothering to talk about rest of the gender issues. They’re too screamingly obvious.

This photo feels to me like a clever photo without much reality, that’s little more than skin deep.