Tue 29 Sep
Whether France’s proposed Photoshop retouching notification law is a valuable idea in the interest of the public good or a misguided example of government overreaching, I can’t say. But I’m pretty sure that it’s a debate worth having. In case you hadn’t heard, earlier this month fifty politicians put a law in front of French parliament under which digitally manipulated images would bear the somewhat rueful label “Retouched photograph aimed at changing a person’s physical appearance.” The goal is essentially one of public health and consumer expectation: don’t try looking like this at home.
Back in the early nineties, when I first learned how to use Photoshop, it was very much a niche product, a professional tool with a learning curve steep enough that any widespread appeal seemed unlikely. Clearly, I underestimated its power; in the intervening years, the digital manipulation of photographic images has become ubiquitous, and Photoshop has become popularly synonymous with its practice. (The fact that its name so effectively tells its own story — Photoshop is in fact a kind of workshop where you transform your photos — undoubtedly played no small part in its colloquial success.)
Nowadays, nearly everyone knows what Photoshop is, and most people don’t hesitate to use it as a verb, e.g., “That magazine cover was clearly Photoshopped.” And I’d venture to guess that the number of people who use the software on a daily basis far exceeds the number of people who ever bought airbrushes, much less wielded them professionally. Which is to say that Photoshop has achieved an unprecedented level of success in shaping both what we see around us and how we understand what we see.
When in the pre-digital age the photographer Jean Paul Goude impossibly contorted Grace Jones’s body for her 1986 “Island Life” compilation album, it was something astonishing, a minor cultural landmark. Today, even the world’s most respected photographers will casually manipulate their own images with similar excessiveness. Some even turn their work over to the likes of Pascal Dangin, a high master of the craft, whom The New Yorker described as…
“…a sort of photo whisperer, able to coax possibilities, palettes, and shadings out of pictures that even the person who shot them may not have imagined possible.”
Though Dangin and his ilk operate at an elite level, that kind of artistic license is nevertheless so commonplace now that it’s barely noticed, which is part of the problem the French law proposes to address. It’s no secret that impossibly beautiful imagery of the human body can play a role in self esteem, of course, but whether a warning notice will be able to meaningfully counteract eating disorders and similar human dysfunctions is an open question.
To me, what’s interesting about this issue is the fact that, after essentially allowing Photoshop and digital imaging of all kinds to subvert our ideas about reality for so long, we’re finally asking ourselves what the effect might be and how should we be dealing with those effects?
As a point of contrast, we’ve spent the better part of a decade and a half, at least, debating the vagaries of digital privacy. It’s a real issue, of course, and not one to be taken lightly. But compare the number of people who have had their privacy compromised to the sheer amount of manipulated, unreal and just plain fake imagery that assaults each of us every day, and the case for a more robust discussion about digital imaging looks like a pretty good one.
Whether the kind of warning label proposed in French parliament would be effective or not, whether it ever makes it into the marketplace or not, we can count it as progress that we’re starting to think about what Photoshop means. Well, I should say, the French are starting to think about it, anyway.