Tag Archives: Newsweek

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.

Pores, Wrinkles, and ‘Unwanted’ Facial Hair: How to Photograph a Real Human Being

Debbie says:

The Republican Party has invented a whole new way to insult a candidate (or at least to claim that a candidate has been insulted): print an honest picture.

Here’s the picture:

close-up of Sarah Palin on the cover of Newsweek

Let’s start by stating two things up front: first, I have absolutely no reason to believe that Governor Palin has been in any way upset or offended by this picture. In fact, I believe there’s some indication that she doesn’t consider this a problem.

Second, Laurie–who isn’t available to blog this with me–has devoted her photographic career to the proposition that “making the invisible visible,” photographing people as we are is important social change. I’ve been working with her since before she started taking photographs, so in one sense I’m not the least bit surprised. (If you don’t know Laurie’s photographs, look here, here and here.)

Ordinarily, I don’t like to embed sources I deplore, but in this case, the Fox News excerpt is worth watching, because it’s worth analyzing.

Note that the clip has two talking heads, other than the newscaster, who hardly has a “fair and balanced” view of the question. On the right, with the title “Republican Media Consultant,” we have Andrea Tantaros, who is outraged. “This cover is a clear slap in the face to Sarah Palin. Why? Because it’s unretouched.”

Tantaros goes on to claim that the cover highlights “every imperfection that every human being has. Pores, unwanted facial hair, wrinkles.” Later in the clip she says of herself that if someone took a similar closeup of her, “it ain’t pretty.”

On the other side, we have Julia Piscitelli, from the “Women and Politics group at American University.” So we don’t know if she’s a student, a professor, or what her role is. Tantaros is a professional; Piscitelli may not be. It will not escape Body Impolitic readers that Piscitelli is also fat. Anyone think that’s a coincidence?

The clip rapidly turns into an arguing match, with the newscaster both agreeing with and giving precedence to Tantaros’s side. At one point, the newscaster says that retouching photographs is what magazines do.

I see three things going on here: first is the photograph itself. Ironically, Tantaros is very very close to right in how she describes it. The picture is unretouched. Once upon a time, before Photoshop, we would have called it … a photograph. Notice that there isn’t any easy way to describe an “unretouched photograph” without using a negative adjective. It does show pores and a few wrinkles around the eyes. Now, pores are not only something that everyone has, they are essential to life. Your skin breathes through your pores. If you don’t have any, that doesn’t make you a high-def porn star, or Miley Cyrus: it makes you dead. As for wrinkles, well, Governor Palin is 44. (The minimum legal age at which she can run for VP is 35.) Many people in their 30s have wrinkles around the eyes, more pronounced when they laugh or smile. As for “unwanted facial hair,” who says it’s “unwanted”? If it was truly unwanted, couldn’t she pluck it, or wax it? Maybe she likes it that way. I would think she would have people around her who prepare her for photo shoots; they could easily have removed any unwanted hair.

Second is the question of the caption, and comparable pictures of Barack Obama. Here, I think the critics have somewhat of a point. The “and that’s the problem” tagline of the caption is not complimentary to Governor Palin, and if you want to hook it to wrinkles and pores, I guess you can, although I doubt it’s what the magazine was trying to do. The comparison cover photo of Obama shown in this newscast is a completely different kind of photograph. I don’t think they’ve given him a halo, but they have gone out of their way to dehumanize him, just as they’ve gone out of their way to humanize Palin. Is one kinder than the other? More fair to a candidate? Less of a slap in the face? Questions worth pondering, if you think Newsweek covers are important enough to ponder. If I were going to examine this in depth, I’d want to look closely at covers not of Obama but of Hillary Clinton. (You can see one here, that looks as though it may be retouched, but also shows wrinkles.)

Third, and most important, is the underlying question of “what is a flaw”? Both Tantaros and the newscaster repeatedly say that “everyone has these flaws.” They also repeatedly say women will be shocked and horrified to see them. By an easy extension, this means that every woman is shocked and horrified every time she looks in the mirror and that every woman really wants to believe that the people in the pictures–movie stars, models, and apparently politicians–don’t have real skin and real hair, that somehow fame confers what Tantaros would call “flawlessness.”

Bottom line: hatred of pores, wrinkles, and facial hair is self-hatred. Tantaros says it herself, when she says a close-up of her “ain’t pretty.” I can only hope that her lovers, friends, and family like looking at the real Andrea Tantaros better than she likes it herself; and that they tell her frequently that they think she’s beautiful the way she is … unretouched.