Cate Blanchett, Photography, and Mimesis

So … a non-food-related aside:

Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer made this post a few days ago about the March / April cover of Intelligent Life, a European satellite magazine of The Economist, which features an image of Cate Blanchett, untouched by the Photoshop brush. Very daring, he calls it. And then he writes:

It is a “curious sign of the times” that a photograph could be unusual for being just a photograph, isn’t it?

Photo is (obviously) not mine.

Some of you will have already seen me write a little bit about this picture, either on Facebook, or in the comments section of Mr. Johnston’s post. But it is interesting enough to me that I thought that I’d expand on some of my comments here.

What fascinates me about it is the way that it makes apparent a hidden contradiction in photography that is fundamental to the medium, and that has (in my opinion) only become more pronounced with the shift toward digital. That is, the tension between mimesis — photography as a medium that reproduces the world — and art — photography as a medium that interprets and represents it.

As part of my dissertation research, I’ve been reading lately about the early history of photography, and specifically, early American reactions to it. For many — notably Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. — the appeal of the photograph over the pen-and-ink drawing or the etching was the way in which it allowed for maximally life-like reproduction. Of a photograph of the aftermath of the Civil War battle of Antietam, Holmes wrote in 1863 that it was so nearly like visiting the battle-field to look over these views, that all the emotions excited by the actual sight of the stained and sordid scene, strewed with rags and wrecks, came back to us.* Looking at the photo, for him, was not like looking at a painting. Rather, it was like looking into a window, onto the particular time and place at which the photo was taken.

This is not an attitude that has gone away. In Roland Barthes’s 1979 Camera Lucida, he writes that even for himself, it is difficult to see a photograph as anything other than a window. It is not wholly transparent, clearly. But it is a concrete signifier of a thing in the world. It suggests the gesture of the child pointing his finger at something and saying: that, there it is, lo!* This is the quality that makes photography the de facto visual medium of reportage. It gives us the sense, even at this late date, of faithfully reproducing a moment, even if we know enough about the genre not to see a window per se.

But photography doesn’t actually faithfully reproduce anything. Which is why this portrait of Cate Blanchett seems so significant. We have gotten so used to thinking of photography as mimetic — even if, intellectually, we know it is not — that it always comes as a shock when somebody rips away those blinders. It is always startling when a photographer makes the claim that he is, in fact, trying to represent the world as it is. Because it implies that photographers, as a matter of course, are not doing that.

What is interesting about this photo, in other words, isn’t our initial reaction — OMG, she’s not airbrushed! Rather, it is that second reaction — OMG, the medium isn’t what it appears to be! And it doesn’t seem to matter that we all already knew it. The distance between knowing it and seeing it makes the experience like new every time one of these pictures gets published.

But all that said, there is a second layer to all of this — something pointed out several times in the comments on Mr. Johnston’s post by the more cynical element of his generally very perceptive readership. Just because the photographer, here, hasn’t Photoshopped every wrinkle and mark on Cate Blanchett’s face smooth, that doesn’t make the photograph mimetic. It is hardly a transparent window onto that, or any, time and place.

One of the readers commenting on the initial post sort of snidely points toward other photo-manipulation programs out there for the computer — Adobe Lightroom, Corel Photopaint, my beloved GIMP — that might be used instead of the all-powerful Photoshop. His implication is that abstaining from one program does not equal not manipulating the photo at all.

I would largely agree with this. I’d suggest that we can take the photographer at his word, that the photo is not airbrushed — that it is Photoshop-free. But that does not mean that the photographer is abstaining from using a bevvy of other tools to “manipulate” the image — to give us a flattering portrait of Cate Blanchett that is coded as “naturalistic” rather than plastic.

The photographer (or his bosses), after all, have gotten to choose where the portrait was taken, in what kind of light, with what kind of camera, with what kind of lens. He (or his bosses) have gotten to choose how Cate Blanchett would be styled, who would do her hair, her make-up, her wardrobe, and any one of a thousand other choices that ultimately influences the look of the final product at least as much as how it is post-processed.

Certainly, the photographer here has made the decision to shoot with a long lens and a large aperture. That is how he has achieved such separation of the subject from the background, and some of that inner glow that shows on Cate Blanchett’s face. He’s made the decision to have a light — I assume a strobe with a softbox — somewhere to the subject’s left, to emphasize her face over the rest of her head. And he has chosen to shoot, probably with a broad fill light (or conceivably sunlight?) in order to make the lighting effect as subtle as possible.

Meanwhile, the stylists are not absent from this equation. Her makeup is done to be subtle, but it is there. I’m sure that many of you out there know more about this than I, but I notice, at least, foundation, lipstick, and mascara.

And while there might not have been any “airbrushing” after the fact, somebody has definitely manipulated the photograph’s tone curve and color balance in post-processing, to achieve the optimal brightness and contrast, and to make sure that the whole thing looks flattering in print.

My point here is not to implicate this photographer, or the magazine, in some kind of heinous lie about what was or wasn’t done to the photograph. My point is not to moralize about photo-manipulation (which I cheerfully admit I do quite a bit of myself). My point is to suggest that what makes this photograph so interesting is that there are two things going on in it at once: first, it shocks us by making clear the degree to which other portraits in other magazines are Photoshopped; and then it makes clear the degree to which, Photoshop or not, photographs are categorically not windows into some kind of reality. Because whatever kinds of post-processing have taken place here, everything about this picture is “manipulated.”

* Quote from Alan Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs (1989): 90.
* Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (1979): 5.