Sleight of Eye
Angela Riechers July 27, 2010
Sleight of Eye
Angela Riechers July 27, 2010
Sleight of Eye
Angela Riechers July 27, 2010

Sleight of Eye

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.”

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, anyway.”

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 resulting 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.

Four examples of using Photoshop to create unreal images. 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 duplicated.

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.

Which background? 

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 the truth.

Tags Inspiration Article Voice graphic design illustration photography