That Perfect Day

George Hurrell, Errol Flynn

Every few months one of the news channels does a story about the unethical practice of Photoshopping models. "They send the wrong message." "Nobody could meet that level of perfection." "It's dishonest and false." Yes, these are all true. But it's not a new concept realized by the power of Adobe tools.

The Greeks slowly refined their sculpture of the human body over several hundred years. The first figures of gods and goddesses were more realistic than Egyptian stylized sculpture. By the Classical period, they managed to perfectly recreate a human body in marble. The figures were perfect anatomically. But nobody liked these. So the sculpture moved toward an idealized version of the human form. Take a couple of ribs out, reposition the oblique, create stances that defy gravity, all good. People liked these.

In the 1930s, George Hurrell mastered a technique that reframed the movie stars of the period as the gods. He posed them in romanticized settings, added flawless lighting, and retouched the images creating a marble like appearance while holding the sharp detail. Other photographers have attempted to recreate this technique, but there is an extra spark in the Hurrell images. Again, the public opted for the fantasy of perfect creatures living in paradise, free from disease, poverty, and depression. 

My headshot has been heavily retouched. I'm rather wrinkled and aged so I demand this. Of course, it's a shock when people meet me in real life. It can be demoralizing when someone shrinks back kind of throwing up in their mouth, but at least the photo is nice.

Veronica Lake

Joan Crawford, unretouched left, retouched right

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

The Oldest Living Rubylith User

Several weeks ago, I was asked to do a short segment for the 25th Anniversary of Photoshop. It sounded fun until I was told I would need to demonstrate some of the tools used before Photoshop. First, this was an honor and scary at the same time. It was wonderful to be asked, but was I the last living designer who remembers what a rubylith was? And then the thought of showing how we used these tools after 25 years was challenging. But, what the heck? If I got any of it wrong, I was the last one alive to know.

During the shoot, I realized that the rapidographs weren't working and I didn't have a true square edge to the drafting table. I hoped that nobody would notice this. But I was surprised how quickly I recalled the process. I didn't have time to mix the rubber cement to the right consistency, or cut the ruby exactly (you'll know what that means if you are old). I liked how meditative the process was. It was slow and careful, a true craft. My hands even got dirty with ink and rubber cement boogers.

When I was finished with my demonstration, I kind of missed the old days of typesetting, the waxing machine, and the quiet concentration of making a mechanical. I recall going to AIGA events in New York in my early 20s. I would see Massimo Vignelli who was always kind and oddly remembered my name. He was flawless in his Massimo simple black and white clothes. Or Ken Carbone, who was also dressed in the most relentlessly crisp white shirts. I had my khakis, pink oxfords, and repp ties with bits of rubber cement, glue, and pieces of tape. I could never understand how everyone else stayed so clean. That was the true secret of life before Photoshop.

And Now for Something Really Disturbing

Do you ever do something and then doubt your sanity? For years I’ve been collecting family images. I find them at the Virginia Historical Society, Library of Congress, old books, a shoebox from my grandmother, and ask for photos of portraits hanging in a relative’s foyer. So far, so good. This might be obsessive, but certainly productive. Everything was working perfectly. I’d find an image of Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill, attach it to a short bio, and voila, another leaf on the tree was articulated. In some instances, I could only find someone in a group photo such as the crew team at Harvard in 1914. But that was fine, as long as I could point out the right person.

Then something changed. Working on this one night after a rather grueling day and a couple of ginescas (Tanqueray and Fresca), I slipped into a disturbing place. I fixed the levels and color of the image, and then replaced my relative with a picture of myself. Okay, scary, I know. Then it seemed to become a bizarre art project. It’s not as easy as it seems. Modern lighting and cameras are very different than an image taken in 1880. Now it hasn’t gotten so bad that I’ve started recreating the lighting and shooting new images to drop in (although I did consider it). I can justify this in a couple of ways: first, I’m learning Photoshop techniques; second, it’s a “Cindy Sherman in history” art project. But I’m pretty sure this points to a tragic desire to retreat into the past.

Spray and Pray

On my first day at art school, a student two years ahead told me emphatically, “You need to know how to airbrush.” As freshmen, we used colored pencils and gouache. In the junior level studio, they all used the airbrush. The sound of the spraying and chug of the motor was often interrupted with, “sonofabitch!” I was frequently concerned that my career would never happen because I couldn’t use an airbrush.

For those of you who only know the spray paint can symbol in Photoshop®, an airbrush is a machine that is like a fancy can of spray paint. A compressor runs a stream of air through a nozzle that has paint. To make an image, you mask off the areas you don’t want painted, and smoothly spray. Then you take off that mask and make another one. The airbrush sounds easy. I’m sure you may be thinking, “so what, I can use spray paint.” But it clogs, splatters, your masks pull off other paint, and you shout “sonofabitch!” a lot.

My inability to use the tool only makes my admiration for the masters of airbrush greater. Digital perfection and high-definition may be in vogue today, but I think it’s time to celebrate this great work. It was a southern California art form that screams Venice Beach, roller-skating, Xanadu, Sunset Strip, and palm trees. And even better, the guys who were the airbrush kings, such as Charlie White, were the most laid-back, down-to-earth, and just plain nice people I’ve ever known.

Dream Big

July 1964, Walter Allner

For some quirk of data collection, I am listed in a book about Saul Bass and Walter Allner. This book does not exist. If you’re one of the people who insist I have a copy and won’t give it up, please believe me. If it were to exist, I could retire happy. To even be mentioned with Saul Bass and Walter Allner is a huge honor. In this case, it’s just bad data entry at Amazon. Walter Allner designed some of Fortune magazine’s most incredible covers. Allner, trained at the Bauhaus, was one of the pioneers in the field who brought modernism in typography to American design. His Fortune covers are examples of a minimal and graphic approach. He told his students, “Raise the aesthetic standard — the public is more perceptive than you think.” These covers and his body of work presume that the audience is intelligent and visually literate. There are no big headshots of Britney Spears. In addition, for those of you who are saying, “Yeah, so what, I could do that stuff.” This was before Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. The windows of the Time & Life Building on the 500 Fortune cover are actually turned on. For real.

May 1959, Walter Allner

May 1958, Walter Allner

July 1953, Walter Allner

March 1955, Walter Allner

January 1959, Walter Allner