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Aesthetics and Wanting to be (Vice) President Now that Everyone Can Photoshop

I suppose that relative to the political news junkie set, I’m a little late catching onto this one.  With my pre-election October stupidity filters running on high, when I first heard of an “outrage” over a Newsweek cover image of Sarah Palin, I promptly ignored it.  There’s a lot of “outrage” at this time during leap years.

All of that withstanding, now I’m interested.  You see (you probably already know), the “outrage” is that her photo was not doctored! This is about aesthetics and it’s about digital imaging.

Those are things that interest me.

Moreover, I think that this moment, while “Conservatives” demand more photo manipulation of a major-office candidate, marks a turning point in our society’s relationship with digital media.  It also marks a sad day in the way in which we depict women.  In both cases it elevates a preference for the fake in imagery to a preference for the fake in real people, in (potential) political leaders.  The hollowness of the outcry is irrelevant.  The fact that it’s happening is enough of a sign in itself.

The cover in question:

First, if there had been no outcry over the image, I would have thought it was a positive depiction.  Perhaps because I’m actually attracted to human women, as opposed to their highly improbable and sometimes physiologically impossible beer poster counterparts, I’m not put off in the least by a woman in her 40s who has very light wrinkles.

Up until now, I would have thought, to the extent that we associate wrinkles and gray hair, etc. with age, and age with wisdom and experience, that showing the former beauty pageant contestant as a real 40-something year old who may have even experienced stress once or twice, would have been an affirmation of qualifications that actually matter for a VP candidate.  In light of the massive efforts by presidential campaigns to influence public perceptions of candidates through imagery, I might have thought the campaign itself would have “oldened” Sarah Palin up a bit to counter very serious questions about her knowledge and experience.

That was until we had a female candidate in the digital age, I guess…

Unfortunately, we seem to have reached a moment in which not only does vpilf.com exist, but there were rumors (that I’m not substantiating) that it actually belongs to the McCain campaign.  (If you don’t know, look up “MILF” and then think, “Vice President”.) It’s as if some people actually want their first non-penis bearing Vice President to look like something from Photoshop Disasters.  Try this one and ask yourself if your really want public figures to look like plastic.

I suspect that pundits who were instructed to discredit the media jumped the gun on this one.

Now, let’s compare the “outrage” to the controversy surrounding another Newsweek cover:

Do you remember that?

When Martha Stewart was released from prison in 2005 after an insider trading conviction, Newsweek presented a cover image in which Martha Stewart’s head had been composited with the body of another, thinner, person.  The text reads that “After Prison, She’s Thinner…”  Indeed, she seems so…

There was some back and forth about legitimate issues surrounding photography and “illustrations” in the digital age.  Inside and out of the academic discourse, however, Newsweek’s photo doctoring in this instance was considered highly unethical.

Fast forward to 2008, and pundits are actually demanding that Newsweek digitally manipulate an image of a woman on the magazine’s cover.  Now, Sarah Palin’s cover image was most certainly processed in Photoshop (or possibly, although it’s unlikely, in a competing application).  The colors were balanced, values were adjusted, and the background was removed, all in the very least.  It’s not that she wasn’t “Photoshopped”, it’s that she wasn’t “Photoshopped” enough.

Times have changed.

Until now, my typical Intro to Digital Imaging student has been largely unaware of how pervasive and significant photo manipulation really is within the advertising and publishing industries.  When I show them “before and after” portfolios of photo retouching, they’re usually somewhat aghast at the degree to which they’ve been duped.

I think that if the trend exemplified (or overblown) by the Palin/Newsweek “outcry” sticks, the future of our relationship with images will be very different.  And, I, for one, think I already miss living in a society in wich people like humans.

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