It was the shot seen around the fashion world: Lena Dunham, creator of the lauded and equally criticized HBO comedy Girls, gracing the February cover of Vogue as “The New Queen of Comedy.”
The accompanying photo spread by Annie Leibovitz features the Girls star swaddled elegantly, and in some photos quirkily, in designers such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Rochas. “I love clothes that have eccentricity and wit to them,” Dunham is quoted in the Vogue piece, and in one photo she aptly wears an Alexander McQueen feather dress and capelet with a pigeon perched humorously on her head.
The Vogue spread, instead of being celebrated as a triumph for the average woman who is not model-thin or even conventionally attractive, was immediately criticized for its use of airbrushing. Detractors questioned why the cover photo was a close-up of Dunham’s face instead of a full-length photo. The issue drew comparisons to Elle’s February 2014 Women in Television cover, which used a monochrome headshot of Mindy Kaling, a comedy actress who, like Dunham, doesn’t fit sample size.
Then, in a move widely seen as tactless, feminist blog Jezebel offered $10,000 for the original, unedited photos from Dunham’s spread. The photos were delivered, but in terms of a big reveal, they didn’t deliver much, as standard light adjustments and other minor alterations to smooth Dunham’s figure and clothing were the only edits made. In the end, the Jezebel bounty came off as body-shaming, and the whole charade left many observers questioning the media hoopla over Photoshop rather than the validity of photo retouching in fashion magazines.
The charade, cringe-worthy though it is, has its precedents. In fashion photography, digitally retouching photos for a sleek, streamlined look has become de rigueur.Photo editors sometimes seem to be on autopilot when altering female bodies for an ever youthful, ever thinner appearance, in some notorious instances erasing necessary details such as models’ arms. Yet in an age when digital alteration is a reliable creative tool for fixing and editing photos, Dunham’s Vogue spread is standard, not drastic. In sum, her photos went through the same editing process as every Vogue cover girl’s.
In one photo, Dunham and her co-star Adam Driver were juxtaposed over a different background than the original, a choice that demonstrates how digital editing is part of the photographer’s and editors’ creative licenses. Taken to heavy-handed extremes, Photoshop can render the subject unrecognizable and cast editorial integrity in doubt. At its best though, Photoshop allows for imaginative enhancement and re-creation of an image, in terms of texture, lighting, and composition. In theVogue shoot, Lena Dunham photographed by Annie Leibovitz on a subway platform in a beautiful multicolor Céline wrap coat looks exactly as we should expect: more brightly lit than in life, but as honestly glamorous as the wardrobe requires.
On her part, Dunham declined to take Jezebel’s bait. She has pointed out that anyone can see a realistic view of her body on her TV show, in which she frequently appears nude. In an interview with Slate magazine, Dunham said, “A fashion magazine is like a beautiful fantasy … I feel like if the story reflects me and I happen to be wearing a beautiful Prada dress and surrounded by beautiful men and dogs, what’s the problem?”
Similarly, Mindy Kaling tweeted with good-natured humor in response to the flap over her Elle cover, “It made me feel glamorous & cool. And if anyone wants to see more of my body, go on thirteen dates with me.”
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