August 21, 2010

Jennifer Aniston’s Inadvertent Lesson in Photography

The primary “issue” with the photos is that they are incredibly backlit. I imagine that Lubomirski, understandably, was attempting to create a “hair light” or “rim light,” which, when successfully executed, results in a glowing halo that is not just flattering, but helps separate a subject from its background and draw focus to it. The potential problem with shooting for a hair light using sunlight, or light that you cannot control, is that you must center your exposure somewhere between the back light and the light on the subject’s face.

A camera operates under the same principles as your eyes: you adjust its aperture – the opening which allows light to hit the film or the sensor at the back – in order to expose a subject. Your pupils work the same way, opening wider in darker settings, and narrowing in brighter situations. If you’ve ever come indoors from a sunny street to find that you are temporarily blinded or turned off the lights to total darkness which then slowly lightened up so you could make out the shapes around you, then you’ve experienced the “aperture” of your eyes closing and opening to “expose” what you are seeing. A camera is like a less sophisticated replica of your eyes, which is why sometimes when you take a picture of something that looks correct to your eyes, the resulting photo may not always come out the way that you see it – your eyes are marvels of organic engineering that no camera can ever compare to. Additionally, our brains will connect the missing pieces or fill in the blanks, so sometimes you are “seeing” things that aren’t actually present or your experiences may alter your vision (Which is why they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder).

With this in mind, the photos of Aniston reflect the camera’s inability to “see” as we see. Our eyes can even out the light and our brains fill in the rest. The camera, however, does not have a brain, so it can only give us the logical results of whatever things we put into it, and even then, our minds filter our interpretations of an image (For example, your mother loves your awkward middle school photos, but you despise them). What appears to be happening in the photos of Aniston is that the camera’s aperture, or “pupils,” exposing for the light behind her, is too narrow to let in enough light to properly expose her face. It’s akin to entering a room after being outdoors: everything is dark and muddied because your eyes are still adjusted to brighter settings.

In my demonstration, I photographed myself against my open window on a bright Los Angeles day. In the first photograph, I set my aperture to expose for the light coming in behind me. As a result, I am completely obscured in darkness while the background is evenly lit and detailed. In the second photo, I exposed for somewhere between the background and my face, and while you can now see me, the background is beginning to “blow out” and my face is still too dark to be considered acceptable. Additionally, the direction of the light and the way it falls on my features is not flattering. Sunlight is generally harsh, especially when it is not falling directly on the subject. The smooth even lighting that you see in a lot of studio photography is the result of lighting that is placed a little above the subject at an angle. Moreover, the light is often filtered through a “silk” or a “soft box,” a white translucent material which softens the light, reducing the high contrast that creates the deep shadows which shape our world (Which is why the flash setting on your camera is not always flattering, it produces dark shadows, or contrast). What people don’t know is that all those perfect red carpet photographs are lit as if they were studio portraits.

In the third photograph, I am using a “bounce” – a reflective surface – to flash some of the light behind me onto my face. You can see the bounce poking out of the bottom of the frame. While they have professional reflective tools, often coated in gold or silver to color the light, a piece of white paper can produce the same effect. Conversely, there are black surfaces used in photography to absorb and shape light. You can see how the reflected light brightens up my face a little, but how it also begins to again, blow out the background which now has more light thrown on to it In addition to the light that is already present. There is more detail in my face, but less in the background.

In the fourth photo I have opened up my aperture to more properly expose my face. You can see more detail in it and the light is much more even than the light reflected on my face in the previous photo. It is perhaps a little more flattering, but now the background has lost almost all of its detail, and the camera’s aperture, now open wide, is letting in a lot more light, which diffuses the clarity, vibrancy, and saturation of the photo overall.

In the last photo, I edited the second photo as I imagine Lubomirski, or his retoucher, did, judging from the final product. I adjusted the exposure to make my face clearer, blowing out the background as the background is blown out in the Harper’s Bazaar cover. I gave myself the Photoshop treatment, evening my skin tone, covering up blemishes, eliminating facial hair, brightening the whites of my eyes, darkening my lashes, and adding a sparkle. Then I slapped an overall noise reduction filter on it to smooth the image out. I’m sure that Lubomirski’s process was much more refined, but my version is a pretty good approximation. Photo editing is no new process, nor is its requirement a symptom of lacking skills. In the black and white film dark room, the process of “dodging” and “burning” can bring details out of underexposed and overexposed elements. In color film photography, one of the most basic and ongoing lessons is the art of color correction. In both instances, “spotting” is the tedious act of using tiny dots of paint, ink, or dye to touch up printing blemishes. Image manipulation is an important part of photography’s history, and many of its greatest artists have made provocative commentary through photographic artifice.

Moreover, it appears that Lubomirski was shooting within unpredictable conditions. Natural lighting can be tremendously gorgeous but difficult to shape, especially along the coast, where clouds can roll whimsically in and out – one minute you have the perfect shot and in the next you have the worst. Wind that tangles hair and tugs at reflectors, above-line crew members with money-heavy deadlines to meet, bored below-line staff who just want to get home, and an actress who may or may not have any modeling instincts (Contrary to popular belief, modeling truly requires skill and talent) all compounded on the lens of a photographer can be an incredibly stressful situation. In such conditions, I tend to overshoot to make sure I get the cover shot. One of the invisible techniques of photography is sheer volume, but the general public usually never sees the pages and pages of contact sheets full of unusable images. Indeed, one of the greatest lessons I learned as a student of photography is that not every shot is the shot and that you must be comfortable with failure in order to achieve success. That there are “unflattering” un-retouched photos of Jennifer Aniston should be no surprise to anyone, simply think on all the photos you’ve taken and deleted with your friends. To criticize Aniston or Lubomirski for an outtake is to claim unreal standards.

The reaction to Aniston’s Harper’s Bazaar photo reveal our schizophrenic relationships with celebrity and image, as well as a misunderstanding of photography as a process and an art. Additionally, the legal action being brought against the feminist website Jezebel (The image has been removed from almost all other celebrity gossip outlets) for publishing a comparison between the raw image and the final image begins to deconstruct the bizarre mystique that surrounds both celebrity and photography, exposing the frail egos on either side of the lens. Like the small man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the processes of celebrity and the processes of art are supposed to be invisible, their perpetrators hailed as “genius,” setting up a greater disparage between them and us “common people.” Consequently, when a celebrity is seen with her natural freckles or a photographer’s rough draft is released, we feel entitled to a judgment we would not pass on ourselves. We decry Photoshop as deception, yet when the curtain is withdrawn, we balk in horror, our lion’s courage suddenly gone. While Jezebel’s feminist perspective elicited more wholesome commentary, Aniston was still chastised for improper sun and skin care instead of simply being embraced as she is. In other forums, the criticism has been downright cruel and superficial,, continuing to evoke the exasperating sexist narrative of jealous loneliness devised by tabloids to move product. Lubomirski has been similarly criticized, his skill judged and questioned.

Sometimes you just can’t get the shot and I don’t envy the conditions Lubomirski might have been shooting under. At a recent shoot at the beach for 365Hangers, I had to finally relinquish creative control after battling the elements, and simply strive for the best I could do. Lubomirski’s stakes are no doubt much higher than mine, with incredible pressure to achieve stricter standards in order to continue working in the competitive world of high profile editorials. Whether the final product reflects Lubomirski’s vision or not, it’s a lovely image. While I do wish that Aniston’s charming freckles had not been obliterated, as far as image manipulation goes, the photo is not that drastically altered. What Aniston truly looks like or does not look like cannot be concluded from the outtakes, for as demonstrated, lighting can change an image as much as Photoshop can. That this is even an issue at all is exasperating, yet sadly, not surprising, and I wonder why we can’t just treat it as we do any other “bad” photo we take these days: delete it and pose again.

[ Jennifer Aniston image via Jennifer Aniston Center and used under the Title 17 Fair Use as provided by section 107. ]

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