Tuesday, May 6, 2014

From Glamour Shots to Selfies to Who Knows What?

Photography has changed quite a bit in the two and a half decades I've been drawing funny pictures. This instant availability--and easy manipulation--of photographs has certainly changed how I do my job, as well as how people archive images of themselves. I sometimes think the newer generations are becoming vain, selfie-obsessed idiots all eager to gather as many images of themselves as possible--then I remember that we were all like that too. We just didn't have the tools that kids today have.

Back in My Day . . .

When I began in this business there were no smartphones and no email. Hard to imagine that, especially if you're a twenty-something who has never been without these conveniences. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, email was a nascent form of communication limited to a few of the tech-savvy kids in college who posted to computer-engineer-populated message boards using a bunch of programmer-type symbols I didn't understand. AOL and Myspace hadn't shown up yet, and I regularly used an arcane little device called "a fax machine" at my first office job.

Polaroids were pretty expensive, so they were
used for really special occasions--like if your
super awesome kid was named J.T. McWilliams
Elementary School's "Jet of the Week." 
Now, photographs weren't exactly daguerrotypes when I was a kid, but it was a more involved process than tapping a screen and hearing a fake shutter sound. Moms had rolls and rolls of film in little black canisters, awaiting a trip to the photo-hut for development. Polaroids were nearly instant gratification (at three minutes, an eternity that would send the average teenager today into a swoon of boredom), but the film was expensive and some of the cameras required one-use flash bulbs which were also pricey. I doubt kids would be clicking quite as much if every selfie cost them a buck and a half, like Polaroids did. School picture day was a big deal, and you ordered a bunch of them so you could sign them and write messages and give them to your friends when you saw them in the hall. This was the same underlying principle that drives social media.  Look, a picture of me! And I wrote words! I like you, you're cool, I want to share this with you! It was like Facebook but with effort and supplies. But hey, no ads.

When I started doing retail caricatures, drawing from photos was certainly a source of the booth income. It was usually a parent with a wallet-sized photo of their kid, from that school year, and so it was always a decent photo to work from (professionally shot, good lighting, and with luck a decent smile on the kid's face too). Sometimes people would bring in badly-lit candid shots or older photos, but generally the process went smoothly in person. If someone wanted to mail in a photo though, that got a little complicated. Phone numbers and addresses were exchanged, they mailed in photos and payment (like through the US Postal Service), I drew the person, and then I mailed the photos and art out to them. It took a while.

Living in the Future! 

The process of drawing from photos has been streamlined beyond all my expectations. It still shocks me that I can get an email query, download the photo from 3G or wifi from wherever I happen to be, look at it on my perfect little iPhone screen, draw from it, snap a photo of the caricature with that same phone, text it to the client for their approval, then click on my Paypal app and zip them a bill, which they pay using their phone. Then I pop the caricature in the mail (if they want a hard copy) or email them the high-resolution version (if it was a digital order).

A helpful booth tip: to draw from a phone, you
can stick it in a plastic bag and clip it to your
drawing table. This frees up your hands, helps
ensure you won't drop the phone OR coat it
with airbrush paint or chalk dust, and screen
taps register just fine through thin plastic. 
Comparatively, the old way of taking photo orders now seems about as modern as tying things to pigeon feet (or, if you're a George R. R. Martin fan, to ravens' feet). But all is not roses in this fancy futuristic world. Along with all this convenience, there has come inconvenience. Nowadays, when a parent walks by and says "Oh, I want to get my kid drawn, can you work from this picture?" they don't pull out ONE professional school photo to hand you--they stand there for about twenty minutes shuffling through the two thousand amateur photos on their smartphone. And they show you photo after photo, many of them from bad angles or with weird lighting. Then, as you draw from their phone, it powers down every twenty seconds so you either have to keep tapping the screen or see if the phone's owner knows how to change that feature on their settings (they never do). And I still suffer from worries that someday I'll drop a customer's $500 smartphone and shatter the screen! But still, a good amount of the booth income does come from photo work.

Working on mail-order commissions (or, rather, email-order commissions) is a lot easier in terms of turnaround. If the photos the client sends your aren't going to work, you can communicate that and often have better photos within a few minutes. If you aren't sure you're going in the right direction with a drawing, you can email or text them a sketch and hear their feedback within minutes. When doing commissions at the booth, I can just snap a photo of the art on the drawing table and send it off for the client to preview. Some artists water-mark their final caricatures until the client coughs up the payment--and even that process is easily done now on smartphone apps. (I have skipped that step often by simply photographing the art with my hand somewhere in the frame, holding a pencil or something. It shows scale AND makes that photograph unusable as final art--unless that person doesn't mind having my big ol' hand in the image they print and frame, ha ha!). But, luckily, most folks are fairly trustworthy and well-meaning. Out of literally hundreds of photo orders, only once has anyone bilked me out of payment. That's a pretty decent track record.

But again, with this convenience comes some brand new inconvenience. First and foremost, I wish all customers understood pixels, resolution, and how photos work on the internet.

You say she's on the top, second from the right? . . . okay, zooming in . . .  well, she's a lovely looking eighteen pixels. 
I think some folks believe we have the (fictional) feature they see on CSI called "infinite zoom & enhance," whereby someone's class ring can be read from the low-quality security footage that captured them from across the street. Photos on Facebook or other sharing sites also compress the images to make them load faster, and any image you see on screen is going to be 72 dpi (that means dots-per-inch for any folks who forgot). So if the person's face is only half an inch wide on their Facebook profile photo, there will be 36 x 36 pixels making up their entire head. Oddly enough, thanks to our brain's awesome power at recognizing loved ones, that's enough for us to say "hey, that's Suzie!" if you know Suzie. But for someone who has never laid eyes on Suzy, it is NOT enough data to draw a picture of her. Creases or wrinkles are obliterated, dimples and smile lines are unreadable, and eye color? Hahahahahaha good luck.

So, sometimes instead of one really good photo, people email you a low-resolution photo that won't do you much good. or worse, a TON of low-resolution photos that won't do you much good. I have started giving really clear instructions when people ask if I can draw from photos. This is because without VERY CLEAR instructions, people can go really off the deep end. I tell them to not choose a photo based on how beautiful the person looks in it--rather, choose the one you would give to the police to put on the news if that person went missing. Pick the photo that looks most like the person, because plenty of photos lie. And for god sakes limit yourself. One couple sent me nearly a hundred photos of themselves, spanning several vacations and (from what I saw), at least five hairstyles between the two of them. I stopped opening the files after I saw the sheer number that had come in and told them they must pick three, ONLY three, and out of those three, tell me which photo is their favorite. Some clients have just sent me their Facebook page address and said "look through all of these [eight-thousand photos?] and pick whatever you need!" This task would literally take me longer than the drawing and painting process--not to mention, I have no idea which photos are great and which are awful at representing the person's likeness. Some photos just plain don't look like the subject. And there's one kind of photo that never seems to look much like the subject.

But First, Let Me Take A . . .

Purse those lips, ladies, because duckface is SEXY!
Ah, the selfie. Battle cry of a thousand self-absorbed teens and now a pop song. If only the selfie were simply a photograph of the self. But many of them don't really resemble the photographer at all. I am no lens maker or photography expert, but I have had enough selfies shoved my way to attest that the phone lens does something WEIRD to a person's face if the photo is taken from arm's length. A fish-eye warping occurs that sometimes makes ears disappear and features bug out. (And I love bugged-out features, but only if I am the one bugging them out, and only if they in fact should be bugged out because of the way that person looks!)

Check out this quilt of selfies I put together from a Google search. They illustrate a common nitpick I have with this type of photo reference. First, you can see the warping effect I was complaining about. Next, look at the guys on the left and compare them to the ladies on the right. Now, I'm generalizing here, so this doesn't apply 100% of the time but it sure seems to happen a lot . . . guys often seem oblivious to this warping effect of close-range selfie photos, but ladies seem to know instinctively how to use it to their advantage (and to a caricature artist's disadvantage). Notice how the guys look oddly bloated and seem to have bigger noses, and it looks like their ears have been pinned back a bit? The gals, on the other hand, are angling the camera so that the warp makes them look more elfin, babyish, and coy. Forehead and eyes are bigger, while the rest of them is smaller, and they cock their heads to look "glamorous." Some might even pull a duckface. Don't even get me started on duckface.

Long story short is that selfies are NOT TO BE TRUSTED! I hate them. I have had plenty of folks send me selfies alongside regular photos, and they rarely look like the same person. One lady sent me eight different photos of her teenage daughter and I immediately said "Are these all selfies your daughter had on Instagram?" She said "Yes. How did you know?" I replied "Because they are all low-resolution, taken at artsy angles with weird lighting, and run through effect filters . . . and while they all look very pretty, none of them look like they're the same girl. In half of them her mole is on her right cheek, in the other half it's on the left cheek. I have no idea what her face looks like straight-on, so if I draw from any of these I'm pretty much guessing." Happily, she sent me a school photo and I was able to work from that.

Vanity-Driven Photography Innovation and Other Mistakes

Hold those collars, ladies! Collar-holding is SEXY!!
I have a feeling that deep down, that lady's teenaged daughter would have rather I worked from one of the selfies. Because those were a tantalizing lie. It's a photograph OF me, but it's so much more glamorous than what I look like! Speaking of glamour, remember these, anyone? Ahhhh, the Glamour Shot. Before I hurl stones at this generation for becoming too selfie-absorbed, I have to remind everyone my age that we shelled out like a hundred bucks and dedicated a whole afternoon to getting photos that looked nothing like us. Photos that I would never want to draw a caricature from. (I'm sure these were the bane of caricature artists back in the 1980s). Feathers, cowboy hats, soap-opera-diva-level makeup, and soft focus lenses were the photographic drugs of choice back in those days.

Who wouldn't want to be "Perfect" all 365 days a year?
A brand-new technological trend has me a little alarmed. Imagine the bastard stepchild of the selfie and the Glamour Shot . . . there are a few apps available now that automatically "fix flaws" and add makeup to a photograph. Hate your hair in that picture? Change it up with a tap of the screen. The same facial recognition software that helps Facebook suggest whom you should tag now also helps you make a photograph look less like you. Y'know, because you can always be better looking, right? Why not give in to the tantalizing lie. It's a photo OF you, it just looks better than you. Just a little. Right? These apps can help you smooth out your skin, add lip color or eye shadow, darken those lashes, and even put a lilt into your smile by turning up the corners of your lips. Sound creepy? It sure can be. There are a handful of fun "touched up" photos of men (and cats too, because, y'know, the internet) created using these types of apps. They show us how this ideal of beautified photographs is teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley. Goodbye human features, hello mannequins.

Enjoy seeing this later in your nightmares, folks.
Right not there is a very public battle going on regarding how much photoshop is too much when it comes to professional models. A few fashion catalogs are taking a stand by not photoshopping their models at all--pretty radical, and it's at least getting those publications some press. It also calls out how many other things we see every damn day, over and over, are lies. Tantalizing lies. Looks like the model but not quite. Now the average teenager has, in the palm of his or her hand, the tools to create visually tantalizing lies about themselves. Is it any wonder Instagram is jam-packed full of them?

How Much Is Too Much?

I'm kind of glad I didn't grow up with today's access to photography. My school memories are in two photo albums, that's it. You can look at the entire extant record of my childhood in about ten minutes. But are we now becoming a population of visual hoarders (of this, I too am guilty), who rack up terabytes of photographic data but never seem to have the time to look at those photos or sort them into any useable form? Facing a pile of old CDs or an iPhoto library that's topping 10,000 images is scary. Scrapbooking becomes a painful process of whittling things down to "that perfect" shot.

But should we really be aiming for perfection? Life is more fun if you pay some attention to the imperfect shots. Because life is imperfect. Old photos of our great-great-grandparents are so much more interesting to look at than hyper-polished pouty-lipped fake-smile-tweaked selfies. Those folks who were photographed in the 1800s and early 1900s looked like they were more than their image. They were doing stuff, living life, and the camera just got in their way for a moment. Nowadays it seems kids are posing constantly rather than DOING stuff, and they are annoyed when life gets in the way of the camera phone.

Retro-daguerrotype-steam-fusion portrait
 of F. Andrew Taylor by Yasmin Tajik, 2014.
I am hoping that this photo-enhancing trend, like the Glamour Shots of my youth, will fade away until they are nothing more than a quaint memory and visual trope to be dredged up for laughs. Everything new gets old, and then what is old is suddenly new again, afterall.

Now I'm off to sort through some photos so I can draw some folks. See you next Tuesday!

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