Several months ago I was on a photo shoot in the south of France. That may sound fun, glamorous even, but alas... it was not. I’m always happy to travel for work but this trip was a complete disaster. Each day we assembled in the hotel lobby and took off before dawn in the freezing rain. We returned at nightfall, in the same downpour, windburned, damp, chilled to the bone, exhausted. St. Tropez, where we were billeted for the duration, was experiencing an unprecedented period of horrendous weather. Icy rain pelting sideways. Dark and windswept cobbled streets, shivering and grim. The buildings lining the narrow streets seeming to huddle down on themselves, as if to keep warm. It was all dark or shuttered windows and even darker moods. As a photographer I am meant to bring the sun, so even if we are shooting in the south of France in February (not the sunniest period they have) I am supposed to produce a cloudless blue sky and in this case, Le Soleil. And I do have my tricks. All photographers do. I can make a gloomy day look sun-kissed and make a sun-kissed day look gloomy, depending on the art direction. But this weather was more than I could handle. Even with all the photographic sorcery I have accumulated over the years I knew that I had met my match and that this shoot was doomed to failure.
Fortunately we had two days to scout locations before the rest of the crew arrived. On day one my fancy Canon camera had some serious technical issues and we had to send it to Nice to get repaired. Leaving me, on day two of the scout, to shoot the locations we visited (to my deep embarrassment) on my phone.
At the end of our scout my team and I had an evening meeting with the client where we were to look over all the locations we had toured and to make some decisions about what we could do to salvage the week. As we reviewed the assembled images of day one, it appeared as depressingly bleak and forlorn as I remembered it. Sad and slick streets, bedraggled, defeated trees. The images had an ominous and sinister ambiance which made the usually bright and cheerful St. Tropez look more like something out of a Stephen King novel than the chic bougie resort town that it is. My client, horrified, asked to see the shots from day two, the shots I had taken on my phone. Lo and behold, those images looked much better, considerably better, unrealistically better. So much so that the client, relieved, clapped her hands and said “finally, the blue sky we need”. I looked at my trusted digital tech who had been on the scouts with me in a state close to panic. I moved my chair closer to his and hissed into his ear, “what’s going on? It was pouring rain. Why is the sky blue?” His answer stunned me. “Because you took those pictures on your Apple phone and it never rains in Apple Land. The sky is always blue and the birds are always singing there.”
Later, after the meeting had wrapped, my tech explained to me that the cameras in the iPhones get confused sometimes by different light scenarios so when that happens the default for the sky is a happy, optimistically hued, pale blue. “Even if you are standing in the middle of a typhoon like I was?” I asked incredulously. “Yes” he said, “even in that typhoon. I think in Apple Land they just want us to like the photos we take on our phones, traditional and heavy photographic equipment be damned! So they (the Apple mothership I assume) brighten ‘em up and drop in that fake blue sky when they deem it appropriate.”
That bit of technical information about my phone started me off on one of my anti-tech tirades with a sidebar of me ranting about the fake realities that are presented as authentic these days. On social media, in advertising, and even from the newsrooms. I remember when television started broadcasting in “high def”. Suddenly all the newscasters on Fox and CNN and even PBS were rendered in way too high definition. They looked a mess. All gigantic pores and sweaty jowls. Eyebrows like twisted telephone cables reaching out away from their owner and almost into my living room. There's reality and then there's REALITY! And that was the problem with the high def broadcasting. It was too realistic. So high def had to go - but it couldn't really go because high def was the next big thing and everyone always wants the next big thing. But there was a solution. Filters. Now our trusted news people are shot in high def but filtered to look less high def which is also a disaster. I am appalled and yet fascinated by the way the newscasters look today. Because of the filters and the lights and the hair and makeup tricks employed by the studios, all these fine men and women, diligently barking their own version of events out at us, are beginning to look alike. A compendium of tanned skin, hair spray, big white horse chompers and a twinkle in every eye. Sure, they look put together but they also look completely fake. Like news spitting robots, With those big shiny mouths reading lines in the same voice, no matter the age, color, gender or political orientation of the speaker. They all seem to be filtered through some sort of superficial retouched haze, just like our news is.
It hits me even harder on social media. The filters, the lies, the fake curated lives and bodies and faces. There are people who filter their own children. As if a newborn or a toddler needs a smaller nose and rounder eyes and big juicy puffed up lips. It’s alarming. So when my tech told me about how Apple is doing that blue-sky-thing on my own phone I felt a bit outraged. “Well what if I don’t want a blue sky dropped in? What if I want that sky to look as sad and gray as it did?” “You better lose your Apple phone then” he advised, “maybe try a flip phone, those cameras might tell the truth.”
Where is this going to end? With young boys and girls hating themselves because they will never possess the perfect faces and bodies that they see on Instagram and TikTok? With men and women self consciously berating themselves because they, at 65, have wrinkles and no one else that age seems to? With parents thinking their children are inferior because they maybe have a rash and none of the other children, as witnessed by their parents' photographs, have ever had a rash? Or a bruise? Or a runny nose?
What’s the matter with authenticity? I don’t mean high def reality where reality becomes a monstrous thing, but like 1980s reality. When newscasters were allowed to have wonky teeth and bad skin and weird hair? When adolescents were allowed to be awkward, with goofy faces and bodies, and even (God forbid) breakouts? Everything looks so polished now, so fake, so unforgivably altered.
And here I have to come clean, because I am a fashion photographer and we do retouch our images - although I am old school and try to retouch as little as possible. I don’t like images that look too slick, too unreal, too shiny. But it’s a hard fight. Some clients want their models to look like what I call The Pod People. Those wrinkleless, jointless, slippery looking beings that we see in a lot of advertising today. The Pod People that look like a cross between a newt, an alien and a hairless and poreless human being. Is that what I am meant to aspire to? I hope not.
In the end the shoot in St. Tropez was, quite surprisingly, a success. Mostly because we had a wonderful group of people on the crew and we all gave it our absolute best effort, even in that freezing French typhoon. This crew was especially nice and hardworking. They were all good people, authentic people. And I like authenticity. I miss it in this new and retouched Blade Runner reality we are hurtling towards. But I make sure I get at least one dose of authenticity a day. I get it in the rooms of A.A. where people have to be authentic lest they die, at my favorite yoga studio where the students are there to commune with their bodies, not compete with others, and with my close family and friends. I’m grateful to have so many areas of my life where I can be authentic. And although Apple Land with its fake blue skies and brighter-than-it-actually-was undertones may make me happy when I look through my photos, I know that my real joy comes from unfiltered, unretouched, untampered with reality. Reality, plain and simple.