3 min

Pictures lie, don’t listen

What was Madonna thinking? On the cover of the May issue of Vanity Fair she looks like a weird ghost, eyes like holes, face washed of all detail, head tilted down in anger, like a sinister fox or a hooligan in A Clockwork Orange.

Madonna is supposedly famous for looking her age — it says so right in New York magazine so it must be true — but here she doesn’t look like any age or, for that matter, any person I know.

Needless to say the picture has been retouched. (See the May 12 New Yorker for interesting details on how and by whom). Needless to say, too, you probably didn’t notice or care. This kind of thing has become so common we no longer notice it.

For Madonna and her fellow celebrity shapeshifters the face is just another fashion accessory that can and should be rejigged to meet the needs of the brand. Recognizing this, New York magazine even ranked her “new face” — almost as if it were just another cultural icon — placing it toward the “lowbrow” and “despicable” end of its “Approval Matrix.”

But if Madonna was once the wild and way-out exception, she and her kind are now the rule. Her oft-revisited visage is but the most visible symbol of a culture that no longer knows reality from fantasy.

The snarky and media saavy among us like to think that we’re hip to these games and aware of their implications. But are we?

A New Yorker article on fashion’s premier retoucher Pascal Dangin says Dangin alone “tweaked” 144 images in the March issue of Vogue — ads, fashion pictures and the cover. That’s one man working at one magazine. Multiply that by all the retouching, highlighting and reshooting that goes on in TV, blogs, the internet, magazines and advertising day in and day out and you have a culture saturated with images of impossible beauty. Savagely impossible because they don’t exist in real life and yet they set the standard for all of us.

We’re savvy about the small ways the media alters reality. The camera adds 10 pounds, we say sagely. But I don’t think we quite understand the extent to which new technologies are affecting our view of our selves and our bodies.

Two very simple pictures in the aforementioned New Yorker article show the way the new perfectionism has infiltrated our hearts and souls. The pictures show a naked young woman before and after retouching. She’s beautiful in both but not quite so beautiful, you quickly realize, before as after. One hip is too bony, one breast too flat. The alarming thing for me was that in the end the fiction — smooth hip, perky breast — was more convincing than the unimproved reality. So artful was the retouching that had I not known of the original I would have accepted the retouched version as the truth. Impossible, fictional beauty has become the new norm.

The influence of this weird perfectionism is everywhere apparent, especially among the young. A couple of my young relatives, for instance, think there’s something wrong with their teeth (there isn’t) and they’re willing to pay several thousand dollars to have them “fixed.” I’m sure it’s all because they grew up in a way I didn’t, in a culture saturated in images of physical perfection.

And if young straight suburban kids are vulnerable to this kind of thing, how much more so are gay men operating in the imagecentric culture of downtown Toronto?

Forget looking at pictures. Even having your picture taken can force a psychic sea change. I thought I was aware of all my various imperfections until I took some digital photos of myself in preparation for a trip to the internet and then I suddenly realized that I had yellow teeth. What had been a largely invisible (to me) part of my existence suddenly became a foregrounded flaw. The technology changed everything.

As photography becomes more and more the way we introduce ourselves such reevaluations are going to become more common and more onerous.

Artists have always improved upon reality but few people mistook the fantasy for the reality. The work itself was the tip-off. A painting always announces that it’s a fiction from the very fact that it’s a painting. The art is revealed in the technique. A photograph, on the other hand, denies its own artfulness. With its air of documentary reality, it looks like what it is not. It slips beneath our shit-detecting radar.

As a result photography, especially commercial and fashion photography, exerts far greater influence than conventional art and it’s quickly changing our sense of what it means to be and look normal.

Without anyone really trying, we’re being tricked into thinking we’re imperfect. It’s hard to know how this will play out but face lifting and teeth whitening are probably the least of it. Psychic surgery, anyone?