Saturday, October 10, 2009

The thin end of a fashionable wedge?

You may have seen the Ralph Lauren ad for Blue Label jeans that features an impossibly thin model named Filippa Hamilton? Filippa is, of course, not this shape at all. See the real girl above. She is quite perfect as she is, thank you. The controversy surfaced in the London Daily Mail after an ad agency graphics man went mad with the photoshopping.

To be fair a Ralph Lauren spokesman quickly put the record straight, explaining, "after further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman's body. We have addressed the problem and, going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the calibre of our artwork represents our brand appropriately."

Fair enough and good on them. It was a mistake quickly and openly corrected. I don't want to get into the 'thin versus real' model debate. There are others better qualified to do so.

 I do want to talk about using enhancement in press photos. That I am qualified for, having been the first to use it in the UK national papers. I'll tell you how it all begun because it was me who started it.

On March 4th 1986 Eddie Shah launched Britain's first colour national newspaper. He called it TODAY. There had been colour in papers before, of course, but it was pre-printed weeks earlier. TODAY was 'on-edition.' Real news, sport and features in colour as they happened. I was its launch picture editor. I built, recruited and ran the picture departments. It was the magic of digitisation that made it possible and we were the first to use it. We had to use slide film and scan it into .jpg images. All highly innovative at the time.

Enter the first Adobe Photoshop. I had it but how to use it responsibly? For the first time we could change anything we wanted in a news picture. Before this, small armies of retouching artists were employed to 'airbrush' press photos, relieving the background and throwing forward the main characters. Occasionally an artist would cut and paste two people closer together to fit inside a tight layout. Famously, the Daily Mail once 'airbrushed' the genitalia off a prize-winning bull to save the lady readers' blushes. The farmer sued and won a fortune for defaming his champion.

Now my problem was where to stop. Would we 'shop' Maggie Thatcher hugging Arthur Scargill? Lord Lucan sunbathing in Barbados? It seemed to me that the answer was to forget it was new technology and apply the same principles we had adhered to successfully without it.

a) Only photoshop for quality improvement. i.e. remove physical print scratches, blemishes etc.
b) Absolutely no changes in news photos that altered the context of the event - ever.
c) Absolutely no changes to the physical appearance of any subject.
d) Feature page pictures could be manipulated for effect as long as it was not derogatory to the subject and with their approval. i.e. a showbiz star who always yearned to be a footballer heading a ball in Man Utd kit, etc.

note: An overzealous  TODAY deskman on 'nights' once remodelled Steffi Graf's distinctive nose whilst on a training exercise - then left it in the news queue by mistake. We used it big on page three as a news story. It cost us a fortune and an apology.

The road to hell, of course, is paved with all our good intentions. It won't be the good doctor on the BMA ethics committee who clones Robert Mugabe or the DNA of Adolf Hitler. No, it's the fringe loonies who go too far. Once the polecat is out of the sack, everyone's at risk.

25 years have passed and photoshopping is rife with no obvious guidelines in place. Superstar X demands approval for her magazine front cover shot. "Dahling, just get rid of this, and this." Suddenly she's a size 8 looking ten years old. (not our Filippa, who was oblivious to her starvation photoshopping.)

Eventually we do not believe our own eyes. All credibility is lost. Who thinks stars on magazine covers really look that way anymore? The answer is, nobody.

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