Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Truth and Beauty

Another day, another controversy involving Annie Leibovitz although she seems above reproach to me on this one. This time it’s the Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” ads. To sum up, the women’s cosmetics company Dove has been running an ongoing multi-million dollar ad campaign decrying the unrealistic depiction of women being perpet-
uated by the beauty, fashion, and media industries and especially (as
in the video above) the rampant use of photoshop. The campaign has garnered prizes and been rightly lauded as a brilliant, empowering, and necessary corrective.

Then last week, in a fascinating 6000 word profile of industry leading retoucher Pascal Dangin in The New Yorker by Lauren Collins, was this passage:

"I mentioned the Dove ad campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual 'real women' in their undergarments," Ms. Collins wrote. "It turned out that it was a Dangin job. 'Do you know how much retouching was on that?' he asked. 'But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone's skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.'"

Shortly after the piece hit the newsstands, the beauty cream hit the fan (so to speak). With denials, counter-denials, etc.. We have just begun to hear the beginning of this debate.

The New Yorker is standing by its story -- with one small correction. The publication acknowledged that one of the 6,308 words in the piece was inaccurate -- the word "undergarments." So while the story suggested that a Dove ad showing real women in "undergarments" was retouched by Mr. Dangin, the women in the ads he retouched were nude. These were the photographs shot by Annie Leibovitz, and as you can see from the images below, the Leibovitz images were pretty gutsy pictures. And all credit is due to Dangin for keeping the integrity of Leibovitz’s photographs.

Annie Leibovitz's photographs for Dove

An earlier campaign with photos of a more glamorous group of “real” women in underwear received a lot more publicity, but this was shot by the British photographer Rankin and I think people are getting the two campaigns confused. In any case, I am 100% sure both campaigns were retouched. It is simply inconceivable that any major ad campaign would appear today without some kind of digital help. The novelty in Rankin's photograph was more in the women's weight.

Rankin's photograph for Dove.

In a joint statement provided by Unilever, Annie Leibovitz, and Pascal Dangin all deny "substantially" altering images. Dove's "real beauties" were not airbrushed says the statement but their photos were treated to eliminate dust from the film and provide "color correction".

So what does this all mean? If anyone were ever to doubt that we are living in a digital age, this should be the final proof that this is not a conspiracy but a reality. Note the word “substantially” in the statement above. A photograph can never be assumed to represent reality, but nor has it ever – from the 19th century collages of Henry Peach Robinson to the artfully retouched glamour shots of the Hollywood stars of the 1930s.

Any photograph used in a magazine, a billboard, an album cover, whatever – can only be presumed to be a photo-based illustration. The issue, which Dove's well-intentioned campaign addressed, is the effect these illustrations have on the psyche, self-esteem, and well-being of women (in particular) not to mention the unrealistic view men might have of women. It brings to mind the shock the eminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin was said to have experienced upon discovering his wife’s pubic hair, after which he was unable to consummate the marriage. Annulment followed thereafter.

The hypocrisy that Dove is now being accused of is understandable but, let's face it, not of a Spitzerian magnitude. However, it is compounded by the fact that the product their ads were pushing were skin firming, cellulite reducing creams. So much for accepting "real" beauty! Perhaps we should just all agree that we are living in both the digital age and the age of hypocrisy.

The relationship between truth and beauty, reality and idealization, has always been fertile but tricky ground. That these “scandals” create attention and debate is not a bad thing.

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