Most people know that before Andy
Warhol rose to fame as a pop artist, he was a commercial
illustrator who worked for a number of stores and magazines in New
York, among them Harper's Bazaar. A
number of his lively fashion drawings for Bazaar from the late
1950s and early '60s are currently on
exhibit at the Hearst Tower. Gazing upon the spreads featuring
Warhol's ink and flat-color paintings of shoes, hats, gloves and
beauty products made me think about how magazines never use
drawings of merchandise now. I asked a creative director friend if
he'd seen the exhibit, and whether he liked it. He frowned slightly
and looked bored. “It was... cute.” I mentioned how it seemed sad
that no magazine today would think of using drawings, no matter how
charming, to accompany an article about things to buy and wear, and
my friend's eyes widened in horror at the mere thought of it. “Oh
no! We would never do that! No one would believe it. Not modern.
Photography is modern.”
Warhol illustration for
Harper's Bazaar circa 1950s, in the exhibit “Andy Warhol: The
Bazaar Years, 1951-1966.”
A colleague who had been following our conversation grinned and
remarked, “But photos aren't any more real than illustrations.
They're so fake you might as well have drawn the picture,
Despite our willingness to completely trust an image once
conjured as if by magic from light and chemistry, and now made up
of pixels, pictures lie and they always have. From double-exposed
Victorian spirit images to modern digitally retouched files,
photographs occupy a strange liminal space between truth and
fiction. Yet we want to believe them, even though we know better:
nothing seems more authentic to us than a photograph.
In the professional realm of publications, art directors now
tend to rely upon conceptual photo-illustrations that could just as
easily have been drawn. Instead of hiring an illustrator to depict
the world as an apple with oceans nibbled out, leaving the
continents rendered in the apple's perfect red skin, they now hire
a photo-illustrator, who hires a food stylist, whose assistant
nibbles the apple, which is then photographed. The idea could be
delivered in either format. Why do we prefer this photographically
created visual metaphor over a drawn or painted one? Because it
seems more real.
This is not an anti-Photoshop rant; Photoshop is a fantastic
software program I use every day, which can be put to work as
creatively as anything else in a designer's arsenal, to transform
and build upon what was actually shot. Prior to its existence,
photographers relied on tools such as work prints, X-Acto knives,
rubber cement and paint to alter their work, with a great deal more
time and effort. In the 1980s, Jean-Paul Goude made idealized
images of Grace Jones assembled from cut-up and airbrushed
prints, achieving gorgeous, physically impossible pictures that
could not possibly exist in the real world. The September 2009
issue of Bazaar featured Goude's studio shots of Naomi
Campbell digitally merged with images he shot in Africa. The
photos show the supermodel plausibly wrestling with an
alligator and keeping pace with a racing cheetah. Even Richard Avedon's work prints
show obsessively detailed markup instructions for the retoucher.
Altering photos is not a new game, nor even particularly
remarkable; it dates back to the birth of the medium.
The author took a family vacation pic (upper left) and, with a
little Photoshop magic, created new memories. (photo-illustrations
by Angela Riechers)
What's troubling is that Photoshop can remove a photographer's
own vision from the final version of his or her images published in
a magazine's pages. The
photographer Hiro envisioned his models as forms and shapes in
white space, planning and sketching out every detail for weeks
before a shoot, making sure everything was perfect before he
clicked the shutter. Hiro's particular surreal, vividly colored way
of seeing and thinking infuses every shot with a personal
distinctive stamp that is uniquely his and cannot be
Far too often art directors don't trust their photographers to
create work that will suit the pages of the magazine and please its
readers. Many shoots are only vaguely thought out in advance, an
expensive hodge-podge of props and backgrounds rented, models cast
for half-baked scenarios thrown together and quickly snapped,
“saving time” by shooting multiple set-ups and components with the
intention of having it all somehow come together as a narrative,
later, through the magic of Photoshop. The artist's vision has
vanished from the equation.
Instead of carefully composing and framing the shots in-camera,
the job falls to the designer, who must choose from a dizzying
array of options to assemble composite photos, hardly
representative of the photographer's sensibility. The images become
just Tinkertoys, endlessly reconfigurable.
Do you like her in the red shirt or the blue dress?
Oh, we hate the blue dress?
[Image > Adjustments > Hue]
Look, now it's a yellow dress.
Why do all 50 clocks in this photo about running late show
the same time?
Let's Photoshop them with times 10-minutes apart over a
two-hour time span.
It would have been just as easy, and a lot less expensive, to
think of that in advance and set the clocks accordingly in the
studio. Photoshop time ain't cheap.
In an interview with the principals of design studio Hjarta Smarta, legendary magazine
art director Ruth Ansel
said, “Photography is not a substitute for experience—any more than
theater, opera or painting is—but a metaphor for all our
experiences... photographs reveal a truth that reaches far beyond
appearances.” Lately, photographs reveal a truth based on
appearance alone and not on experience—i.e., something that
happened in the real world—at all.
Among Warhol's drawings exhorting a reader to “Wear Bright Blue
with Blue!” and “Wear Brick Brown with Brown!” in the Hearst
exhibit are paired with the artist's car and Coca-Cola paintings of
1962, his first forays into combining drawn lines with repeated
silkscreened images. The future can be seen moving away from the
line and into the photographic representation: more real-seeming to
us, even though we know photos tend to provide a fake version of
Could our fixation with viewing life on screens be obscuring the bigger picture? Riechers examines the dilemma for designers.
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