Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shinier Fitter Happier People

air guitar

Some cameras by Sony have a feature called “smile detection.” The camera will wait until it detects a smile before it fires the shutter. We’ll no longer have to command grandpa to “smile for the birdie.” In fact, we can just put the camera on a tripod and wait... and wait.

HP has a “slimming feature” in some of their cameras. The advertisement reads, “They say cameras add ten pounds, but HP digital cameras can help reverse that effect.” Let’s add in an eye brightener, teeth whitener and a de-wrinkle effect. This will save us hours of post processing.

A few years ago, I read an article in a photography magazine where the person took Dorthea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph and touched it up to be a “more pleasing” photograph. After digitally manipulated, the mother had a slight smile, smoother skin, brighter eyes and a less concerned expression. She even had a wardrobe update that made her look quite fashionable. The original message had completely changed from desperation to hopefulness and it no longer promoted social change and awareness.

What does this mean for street photographers? If we embrace these features, we’ll end up with a portfolio of shinier fitter happier people. That’s fine if we’re creating artwork that is not meant to be photojournalistic in nature. However, if we’re doing documentary work, we have a responsibility to be objective as possible and digital manipulation should be used judiciously, if at all. We should capture natural smiles as well as frowns to best represent the human condition.

The Tao Te Ching says, “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” How we see influences what we see. If we seek the beautiful, we’ll find and record beauty; if we seek the ugly, we’ll find and record the ugly. By removing labels such as “beautiful” and “ugly,” we can focus on shapes, textures, light and shadow and see our world in way that requires no manipulation because it is perfect already.

"Tao Te Ching" by Stephen Mitchell
Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (Perennial Classics)

"Fitter Happier" by Radiohead
OK Computer

"Shiny Happy People" by R.E.M.
Out of Time


  1. love this post! in fact been enjoying every single one of them...thanks for sharing & am already waiting for the next one.

  2. I think the most evil digital manipulation is the new function in photoshop where you can remove any object in the background.

    Keep up the great work. Your blog is such an enjoyable read.

  3. And I am heading to Mexico next week. It seems to be a great place for street photos. Hopefully my eyes will be as good to spot the opportunities.

  4. Great post. In an age of "anything is possible" and "nothing is real", it's crazy some of the things you see out there. Just pick up a magazine and look at some ads to get bombarded with ridiculous amounts of people made perfect. Like pigs in a cage on antibiotics... But it isn't anything new. Those Playboy centerfolds in the 70s were too good to be true too.

    I think street photography is both a blend of art and photojournalism. Robert Frank's technician Sid Kaplan spent many hours in the darkroom getting things just right, smoothing out the uneven tones on that oh-so-famous New Orleans trolley photo after all (he is interviewed and speaks of it in Philippe Séclier’s documentary “An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’"). Converting color to black and white? I do it every day. Contrast adjustments? Cool. Dodging and burning is fair game if you ask me, analog or digital. But changing the actual CONTENT of what is in the photo definitely goes too far when it comes to street photography and I couldn't agree with you more.

    Now, checkout this Ralph Lauren Photoshop hack job that actually made it to print:


  5. Thanks for sharing this post. It’s uncanny what digital photography can do and the features that new cameras offer. I believe I have a Sony Cybershot P&S that offers the smile detector feature. I have never used it. I suppose, since you specialize in street photography, some of these features appear abominable, but for the advertisers and publishers (depending on the industry and the product), it’s a godsend. Perhaps part of the issue goes back to different schools of thought for photography, like Purists vs. Perfectionists. A photo can be both pure and perfect, but is a matter of perspective to each individual. If I continue, I will digress into multiple topics, but again, thanks for posting this.

  6. With all these new features people of the 22nd century will think that 100 years before everybody was happy and beautiful..

  7. @MPG: thanks! next one maybe tomorrow. ;)

    @Araakii: I agree! I once threw away a photograph because there was a piece of trash in the foreground that ruined the shot. I should have seen it when I took the shot and adjusted my viewpoint.

    @T:R:C: yeah, good points. I should probably do more "darkroom" stuff to my photos because they do seem to lack impact. Thanks for the Ralph Lauren link... that was really scary!

    @TIA: totally agree... I tend toward straight photojournalistic/ documentary photography so I have imposed some rules upon myself. Maybe I should go break some of the rules. I've been feeling that something is lacking in my work anyway. If the processes that you have in place aren't getting you to where you want to be, it's time to revisit them.

    @Akbar: haha!

    Thanks for the responses!

  8. @Araakii: I agree! I once threw away a photograph because there was a piece of trash in the foreground that ruined the shot. I should have seen it when I took the shot and adjusted my viewpoint.

    That's exactly what I meant. Now when people take a photo, they don't bother to find a "clean" angle anymore. Everything can be photoshopped.

  9. Kate (dicegirlsnapz)December 25, 2010 at 8:53 PM

    Street photography is seeing and shooting the right moment. Good or bad, I'd like the responsibility of the results to be mine, not a random whim of my camera. I'm ok with tweaking contrast, color, dodging and burning, just not content.

  10. I agree with Kate - that's what I do with street. Like most I go for the moment. a look up, a pointed finger, a smile. surprise. But I'll have to read the manual to see if my Sony's got any of that fancy dan stuff, or indeed anything other than A or M ;-) Super blog John and I love that shot.