On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times is an article about the digital retouching of school photos and its effects on the psyches of today’s youth. Basically, we’re all screwed because parents who pay as little as $6 to fix their children — tweaking anything from hair-length to a nasty scab — are risking “potentially validating the concerns that it is not O.K. to be that way.” (“It’s not like I’m making him thinner,” said one parent defending the practice.) Digital retouching: cheap. Years of therapy: expensive!
The problem with the article is chiefly that it makes Americans sound awful and superficial, which we are:
Six years ago, like many of its competitors, Irvin Simon Photographers upgraded to digital technology. Now, for about $7, it routinely cleans up pimples, rubs out grass stains or neatens hair, among other touch-ups.
Sometimes the work is more substantial. Marty Hyman, who has been photographing schoolchildren in the New York area for more than 30 years, said that if “if a kid doesn’t look good in the class picture, we will, when necessary, take his head — if it looks better in another picture — and swap it in.”
But there’s another proposed problem and it’s journalistic. As noted by the Times watchdog blog The NYTPicker, telling this story like it’s a new development — a “trendpiece” in media-speak — is misleading because this has been happening for a long time. The blog points to a 2008 story from Newsweek, which reports on the same practice, as well as a bunch of snippy commenters who claim photo retouching is old news:
I am a high school newspaper and yearbook advisor. In a portrait type photo we would almost always remove temporary deformities such as a scratch, pimple, or stray hair as a matter of course….The person who said photos were retouched 40 years ago is correct. Look at a yearbook from 1950 or 60 and you won’t see kids with zits all over their portraits….This is NOT another case of our society becoming more fake. It has always been done.
But something the NYTPicker misses is that the article does indeed note the history behind retouching:
At the time of its founding in 1946, Irvin Simon Photographers, which took Oliver’s photograph, employed artisans who could paint out pimples on negatives with special inks, or even out skin tone with a faint film of paint sprayed onto prints themselves. In those days, the services were available by special request, and the process was painstaking and expensive, said Steve Miller, a co-president.
The difference is that it’s now digital, making it both cheap and easy to be obsessed with the appearance of your seven-year-old.