The Image Empire of Filters: Where's the Line?
"I fit the bill but I am in no way comfortable with my body being in print right now. "
"I want to be in this project, but I don't like my body right now."
These are two real life comments I have had from people who have responded to model calls I have put out for my current book projects. The image empire and false standards of beauty have placed these women in positions of self loathing and embarrassment leading them away from something they would like to do.
I did not ask them directly, I posted the notices and they came to my inbox to tell me that they loved the idea, they wanted to take part, but they could not over body shame. The image empire won, but these women have lost-and so have I.
British Empire VS The Image Empire
I recently read an article on UpWorthy written by Tod Perry. A new UK law bans influences from using 'misleading' filters in paid beauty ads.
Instagram, one of my favorite social media platforms is one of the biggest areas women and teenagers fall victim to the comparison trap. Depression, body shame and lack of self worth gets reinforced with hours of scrolling though images of a narrow definition of beauty.
That definition is not just set by sexist photographers obsessed with the over sexualization of women for self titillation, but also the influencers paid by Maybelline, Sephora and many others. These paid influencers live fabricated visual life of fulfillment while showcasing a product that has not only been photoshopped, but overlayed with filters. The UK, rightly, sees this as false advertising.
Imagine being a teenage girl suffering from depression over complexion and weight. A favorite influencer looks happy and her skin is controlled by xyz product. You order that product, apply it on your face several times a day for weeks and you still do not look like her. Your parents still fight. You are still in the closet over your sexuality. You still do not have the glamorous complexion. The problem must be you.
It is no wonder that image issues like this lead to depression, eating disorders, self harm, and suicidal ideations.
Laws like this one are necessary. I wish it would cross over into this side of the pond. I also wish it went further. The image empire is a perilous place to live.
The Lie of the Image Empire
I am a second generation pro photographer. When I was young, one of my father's clients was a Chicago based upscale department store, Marshall Field's. In the early 1970's, if you were doing a promotion for jewelry, the studio lights were carefully arranged, the black background was perfectly black and free of anything, well, not black and the hand model would come in. She would be a woman, often older than most first time brides of the day. Her working hand would be in an elegant glove that was removed. Her hand was professionally manicured, cared for, moisturized, and insured. The shots would be taken, the film developed using zone techniques, and the final print was dodged a little here, burned a little there, and then a little bit of airbrushing would come to play. No hand looked like this, no engagement ring shone so well in any room light in any home.
The hand, however, was not the product. Just as the bikini clad woman in the beer commercial is the end product. The model is a prop for a product. But where is the line?
The hand model, the bikini clad beer model and the influencer are all carefully created images that are not realistic. Maybe these images drive sales, but if there is a darker affect that leads to someone ending their very lives, maybe we need to take a closer look.
A Brief Interlude on the Cover Photo
For 5 years I had a favorite model to work with. I cannot tell you how many shoots we have done together. She is a friend. Her and her boyfriend were getting set to move to Colorado so I invited her to my new studio to break it in. Before hair and makeup and light tests, we just sat and talked. I had my camera in hand and casually shot from the hip as we talked. These snapshots were for me and for her.
No filters, not pin sharp, no gallery or magazine. But it is one of my favorite shots. This is her laugh and her smile. This is her at her most her. This was my last time hanging with my friend. That was 13 months ago. Pre Pandemic. That makes it a lifetime ago.
In Defense of My Craft
People will look at the works of Ansel Adams and complement the natural and real beauty he captured. But he was a master painter of light. He was converted a 3 dimensional scene of color to 2 dimensions and shades of grey. The settings on his camera, the filters on his lens, the composition, the time of day, the treatment of the negative and the creation of the print was a process of control to show what he wanted you to see what he say in his heart, not his eye.
In my street portraits, some of my subjects are experiencing homelessness. But unlike cheap shot shooters going for easy emotion exploitation, you will never know. I want you to fall in love with his smile, her eyes, and a face with character lines that have lived. I do not want to shame or lesson the person to score a few likes on Insta. This requires painting with light and some adjustments in post. Further, whenever possible, I make it a point to give that subject physical prints, framed if there is a space for them to hang it.
How do we work our craft and not harm others?
I am about to speak to the photographers and the graphic artists. We are the front line of the marketers and advertisers. How we get them to be on board with a more authentic beauty is not something I have the answer to. If you do? Let's connect!
Many street photographers, snapshot photographers and lomography photographers have incorporated the Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi. Based on the 3 Buddhist marks of existence, this philosophy is centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Beauty is not found in perfection or the illusion of perfection. Beauty is seen in that which is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
This philosophy does not drive my street work, but it is a part of it. I am more interested in the decisive moment than I am pin sharp and perfect focus. To capture that moment I have to let go of perfection and a narrow view of beauty. Wabi Sabi allows me to do that.
But until this reading, I have not taken Wabi Sabi into the studio.
I believe it is time for all of us to bring a little Wabi Sabi into the studio and on our prints.
Lives are at stake.
Special Shout Out to Models and Photographers
Models and photographers. I f***in love you both so much. I was 3 when I had my first modeling gig. I was 19 when I walked a runway for the last time. I was 16 when I did my first professional photography assignment. I have seen the best of us and the worst of us. When models tell me horror stories (now called #metoo stories), I believe them and know that we need to do better as photographers.
As I write about this issue, I think of so many of you. If you have a thought on this matter, let's connect!
I will close with an Insta video from a model and friend, Jade Bryce. I met Jade through a friend of a friend when she was working for PlayBoy and Bellator.