This Week in Kerfuffle: The Faith Hill / Redbook Controversy

I'm still recovering from a weekend of dealing with The Drivers of the Mid-Atlantic Region, consuming questionably-named alcoholic beverages served in a weirdly-lit Korean karaoke bar and pool hall, scaring small children and the entirety of the bridal party by wrapping my legs around MD's torso during a particularly rousing dance/grind moment at the wedding, and did I already mention the Screwy Slut? So it's no surprise that I completely missed this brouhaha surrounding this month's Redbook cover photo of Faith Hill. Apparently the folks over at Jezebel obtained a pre-retouched copy of said cover photo of Little Miss Sunshine, and well ... yeah. You should check out the before/after thing they've got over at Jezebel, which shows in pretty plain detail how Photoshop -- our second favorite magician* -- appears to have shaved off 5 inches from her waist, thighs, and arms. Jezebel's got a handful of stellar moments of snark, with links available from this post here. The big kerfuffle happened today, when the Today show ran a segment on the whole matter, and even featured a roundtable discussion with their resident psychologist as well as the editor of Men's Health, where they all waxed annoying about how the media does this/that/the other in perpetuating problematic, idealized bodies as the norm to which we need to adhere (or for which we need to diet/starve/retch/etc). During the segment, Redbook editor Stacy Morrison stood her ground, saying that "In the end, they're not really photographs. They're images." One can go in so many different directions with this statement, and with the controversy in general. I feel like we all know the general critique of media/industry/etc. And if you watch the Today segment via Jezebel, you can maybe laugh at Men's Health editor David Zinczenko justifying what they do over there (basically, real men like cover models in t-shirts, and so that's all they do! Men in t-shirts! Who needs to photoshop when you have real-esque men wearing t-shirts! Christ. Whatever). No, I'm actually curious here about this notion of image. I don't think it necessarily has to do simply with new digital technologies. I mean, take a look at this photo: It's a photograph taken by famed photographer Matthew Brady during the American Civil War. While it does really show dead Confederate soldiers following a battle, it fails to acknowledge (well, how could it?) that the bodies have been moved so that they appear closer together, that the photograph has been staged. Does this constitute an image? Or is it still a photograph? Or how about these? The photograph on the left features Stalin with Soviet Commissar Nikolai Yezhov; the one on the right was retouched after Yezhov fell out of favor and was executed in 1940. Is the one on the left a photograph and the one on the right an image? Does a photograph carry some kind of inherent truth-value? Is an image always already manipulated -- or at least carry with it a skepticism about its location within 'reality'? In a previous post I discussed the collective cognitive weirdness engendered by the photoshop revolution. We have every reason to be skeptical of what we see. But this strange question of photograph or image has me a bit perplexed -- though I'm having some post-weekend-related problems really processing this fully. Is there some kind of grand theory to be generated here about the reproducibility of the photograph already carrying the seeds of its potential falsity? Or: can we say that a photograph, regardless of its Historical Moment, captures time, while an image captures what we'd like History to be? If the latter is the case (and I'm open to suggestions/criticisms/disappointed head-shaking), then what sort of History is that image of Faith Hill suggesting? Or what kind of History is Faith Hill being inscribed into? It's an image about image, sure, if we're talking about our manic obsession about bodies and appearance and our fear of aging and time as our ultimate enemy. But maybe this particular History is also about the falling away of -- for lack of a better word, and many apologies -- authenticity, or at least the desire for it. I mean, History has never necessarily been about the truth; but in a moment where one can argue that a photograph is not a photograph but an image, I wonder if we've lost our ability to construct even mildly plausible narratives about our trajectory. I mean, what sorts of visual documentation would/could we show for ourselves? Is a faux-skinny Faith Hill what we're going to leave behind as a part of our visual detritus? We've lost Commissar Yezhov, but we're keeping the peppy country singer? Great. * This man is, of course, our favorite magician. C'mon!

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