She was already in tears at the point she arrived at my studio. The agency I was working for at the time had a policy of showcasing portraits… silhouettes really, of their upper management on their web site. Audrey had come for her photo, visibly unprepared to sit in front of a camera. She’d recently reentered the workforce after an extended leave to have her first child. Besides the separation anxiety and stress of being back in a harshly competitive environment she was also dealing with the not insignificant amount of weight she’d gained.
“I don’t even look like myself…” She said, almost as an apology.
Still, one of the reasons I love my job, as a portrait photographer, is that I get to meet complete strangers and, within the course of a few minutes, get to know them well enough to capture a bit of their essence. If I’m on my game, the photo they leave with shows a version of them that looks as if they’d had a great night’s sleep and just run into their best friend. It’s a well choreographed set of greetings, questions, pauses and insights, eventually framing an image and clicking a shutter release.
Audrey was going to be a bit of a challenge. Luckily we weren’t all that busy that day so we had a chance to sit and talk. I made her a cup of tea. We compared notes on what having kids was like and how jarring it was that the world of advertising seems to impossibly coexist in the same universe as diapers and midnight feedings. By the time she was in front of the camera, she was able to center herself and muster enough of a Mona Lisa smile that she left with some degree of dignity.
“You’re going to Photoshop some of this fat off, right?” For some reason most women say that as they walk out the door.
Among the hundreds of tools in my arsenal, ‘Liquify’ is one of the most notorious. It does exactly what it sounds like. Apply that filter and the entire image becomes fluid. There’s even a cursor that looks like an index finger. Whatever area you touch the image becomes pliable enough to stretch or shrink or reshape at will. If Michelangelo had had Photoshop, I’d imagine that all the subjects of the Sistine Chapel would have looked like super models. But you use it at your peril. Audrey’s silhouette wasn’t how she remembered herself before the pregnancy and lack of sleep and the stress of a job search. Forgetting my own prime directive, I reshaped her to resemble what she might have looked like years earlier… before stretch marks and midnight feedings; sweat pants and Chinese food.
At first, she was ecstatic. She called me and expressed the same kind of joy and gratitude you might direct to someone who just saved you from drowning. And then things started to go wrong.
The managers at the Agency weren’t happy with her performance. Rather than fire her outright, they hired another woman to do precisely the same job as she did and stoodback to watch them fight it out. After a few months of this and a particularly bad day, Audrey had had enough and stormed off, not to be seen again.
Her replacement, smug from winning what was almost a street fight, pointed to her image on the website… the one I’d lovingly retouched a few months earlier. The same one where I assumed the god like privilege of taking her back in time and transforming her from a size 16 to an 8.
And she said, “No way in hell was she ready for this job. Just look at all the weight she gained since she joined the company.”
Ouch. Tools used without discipline and some degree of judgment (even with the best of intentions) come with consequences. In 2020, every model on every magazine cover has been tweaked to perfection. In that world there is no cellulite. Hips and breasts magically snap to perfect ratios. Skin is flawless. Teeth, eyes, noses conform to olympian standards. It’s a fatal embrace. In recent years, software has been created to automate the process. It’s relatively easy to go from a raw photo to a Kim Kardashian knock off in just a few clicks.
To do less is to reveal your subject as being merely human, but it leaves the rest of humanity struggling to accomplish in real life what’s so trivial to do with technology. And worse, do we really want a generation of people who look like second rate clones?
Gratefully, time has a way of clarifying things. As a portrait photographer, I have an innate love of how unique faces are. I know from life experience that after everything else is gone, an image may be all that’s left. What a missed opportunity to try and blend everyone to some arbitrary beauty standard.
If I had to shoot Audrey again, I’d tell her that this is herself at this single moment in time; nobly trying to balance her relationships and parenthood with a career and doing the best she can. That’s the kind of spirit that’s worth capturing.