Although photographic technology allows for the literal capture of light (and arguably, reality), humans have ironically been trying to alter their captured appearance almost since the advent of photography. For better or worse, looks matter – and politics is no exception to the rule.
In 2016, I was struck by the comical skin retouching employed on a portrait of then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane. At a time when increasingly sophisticated masking and retouching techniques had become commonplace, Sanders’ image looked like a crude gaussian blur applied with a feathered brush from the early 2000s.
With the availability of increasingly simplified “face tuning” apps combined with a perennial awareness of the “power of the image”, I hadn’t expected to encounter images with poor retouching in 2020, but as I dug into a number of races, I was surprised at the variation in many aspects of image quality that I was seeing.
In a sense, retouching a photo is no different than, say, President Trump’s use of spray tans and hair augmentation to enhance his appearance. Every candidate – regardless of gender or age – wants to project a specific image, whether heroic, youthful, friendly, etc.
Analyzing candidate photos is illustrative of both the visual sophistication of their campaign (as indicated by how “professional” the images look), and how they want to portray themselves to their constituents. What follows is a comparison of candidates’ fundraising pages and other photography in a few, highly competitive senate races.
A Reference Image:
As a reference point, here’s Chuck Kennedy’s portrait of former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg from his candidate website.
Kennedy served as Assistant Director, Photo Department in the Obama White House. This is a good example of a contemporary political portrait. A large softbox is used above and camera right to the subject creating Rembrandt lighting, and Kennedy uses a second strobe as a kicker to fill in the shadows and create more sculpting of the face.
The retouching is very light, if existent at all (high res). I suspect there is a little bit of blemish removal and some whitening of the eyes (you can see the outline of his contact lenses). There is no lint nor dandruff on his suit jacket. One could even argue that it needs retouching to smooth the skin tone and eliminate some minor blemishes.
Buttigieg looks his age, and the photo doesn’t scream “Photoshop!” It is a believable, authentic looking photo. This is what a 38 year old human looks like.
As with almost all the contentious Senate races, the Texas seat pits old vs new, and male vs female. Hegar, 44 years old, is an Air Force veteran and teacher.
The portrait that appears on her fundraising page depicts Hegar in a blazer against a dark teal background. She’s looking into the distance, away from the camera, with a closed mouth smile.
The skin retouching is heavy-handed and the transitions in skin tone are so smooth that it almost looks like an illustration As you can see in this Texas Tribune image taken by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., Hegar has crows’ feet and smile lines (aka nasolabial lines) in real life. The high resolution images from the same photo shoot do show pore detail and feel less synthetic, so it’s possible that scaling down the image obliterated any remaining detail.
Hegar’s website includes an image gallery with a variety of scenes to make her appeal to as wide a demographic as possible. Wearing a mask with health care workers aligns Hegar with the democratic party’s embrace of the CDC guidance. Talking to seniors, interacting with kids, comparing tattoos with a constituent, and sitting in the cockpit of a helicopter project a genial personality with military experience. Showing off her tattoos while working out in a gym reinforce her youthful toughness.
The incumbent, 68 year old John Cornyn has held the senate seat since 2002. Like Hegar, Cornyn also served in the Air Force as a colonel, and has spent a career in politics.
Cornyn’s fundraising page features a snapshot-like portrait. A smiling, suit-clad senator in front of Doric columns that places him in D.C. The image is well exposed, but there’s nothing particularly compelling about the light nor the composition. A more professional image might have incorporated strobe to make his face brighter in the scene. But the image selection might reflect a political calculus to avoid looking too polished.
His campaign website does not incorporate much photography nor an image gallery. Most of his images depict Cornyn in a blazer sans tie, interacting with his constituents. As with many politicians, Cornyn uses photography to show that he’s one with the people. Many images are too small to detect or analyze any retouching.
The Iowa senate race between Joni Ernst and Teresa Greenfield features the smallest age gap of candidates in this comparison. Both candidates appear younger than their physical age.
Joni Ernst, the 50 year old incumbent, curiously uses a photo on her fundraising page that doesn’t match her current appearance. In contrast to her current shoulder length, mousey brown hair, this photo features a younger Ernst with a short haircut with much darker hair color. It’s effective political photography with a smiling Ernst behind a podium at the American Conservative Union, but the different hairstyle might cause confusion for some donors.
Additionally, Ernst has two high resolution official portraits on her Senate website, which I would characterize as tastefully toned – albeit trending towards the heavy side. Like Cornyn, Ernst uses marble columns as a background, which not only projects a classical aura, but acts as a diffuse reflector. The reflection in her eyes indicates that an octabank served as the keylight.
As with any decent portrait retouching tutorial indicates, Ernst’s portraits have obviously whitened teeth and eyes. The skin tone is extremely smooth, flyaway hairs have been tastefully clipped, and age related wrinkles around the mouth, nose and eyes are retained – although likely softened.
Ernst’s candidate website features very little photography, but she does make a point of showing up to some rallies on her touring motorcycle clad in leather. It’s a stark contrast to the buttoned up look of her official portraits.
Theresa Greenfield’s fundraising page is devoid of photography.
Her oft-used portrait features the 57 year old in a blue suit against a white background. The reflections in her eyes suggest a two strobe set-up with lighting ratio very near 1:1. The image doesn’t appear to be retouched at all. Age-related wrinkles around her eyes, mouth and forehead along with less than Hollywood-white teeth, slightly darkened sclera and minor skin imperfections make the case. Highlights on the cheeks would probably be attenuated by a professional retoucher.
Greenfield has positioned herself as a “farm kid with farm values” and perhaps the “imperfect” portrait is meant to convey her authenticity – especially compared to the more manicured and retouched Ernst photo.
Greenfield is one of several candidates who uses Flickr to manage a gallery of images that are available in the public domain. The vast majority of the images place Greenfield on a farm or in blue collar settings.
Senator Thom Tillis opted for a full browser window image for his fundraising page that was likely chosen because it prominently features President Trump at a campaign rally. But the photo is a curious choice. Tillis is mid-sentence with a sagging jowl. Trump is slightly out-of-focus due to the shallow depth of field, but partially obstructed by an audience member’s hat, and has a distracting shiny spot under his nose.
By contrast, his campaign website features a media page with images that look like a produced photo shoot. There is an airyness to the images, and like many politicians, he’s placed in various scenes with a range of ages, ethnicities, and occupations. There’s no obvious retouching, but a few images are slightly front focused (and there is a swirly-ness to some of the images) that softens some of the detail.
Cal Cunningham’s fundraising page is devoid of photography.
His campaign website uses a outdoor portrait of a suit-clad Cunningham smiling while facing away from the camera. There is no obvious retouching in the image. The illumination of trees in the background give the image texture without overwhelming the subject. The very subtle illumination of sweat on his right temple, suggest a fill flash. It’s a congenial, effective photo.
The 47 year old challenger maintains a Flickr account with a variety of images throughout the years including his military service, childhood and young adult years, meet-and-greet with Obama, and a number of photos of mediocre composition and technical quality with his constituents.
At 33 years old, Jon Ossoff is the youngest of the politicians in the group. Ossoff uses two different images on his fundraising page depending on how you get there. The first, linked from his campaign website, uses a black and white profile image lit from the side. There is a heroic quality – perhaps meant to invoke thoughts of a young John F. Kennedy. It is a very effective photo.
The second, linked from Google ads, is a smiling Ossoff facing the camera in less stylized, color photo.
It would be interesting to find out which one converts at a higher rate.
The hero image on his campaign website uses an obviously retouched hero image. The smiling Ossoff retains crows feet, but the skin on his forehead and cheeks are nearly blemish free. To be sure, it’s more subtle than Hegar, but it still looks like a not-so-subtle high frequency separation retouching job. It’s a curious choice given Ossoff age and conventionally good looks.
Senator David Perdue looks younger than his 70 years would suggest. His fundraising page features a full window image with Perdue speaking at an outdoor event while gesticulating with his hand. Faint wisps of cloud give the background a bit more texture. Jacketless and with his shirt sleeves rolled up, the photo conveys the image of a hardworking man of the people.
Perdue’s campaign website hero image is desaturated and has a tint giving the image a cinematic feel (the elongated aspect ratio is also very reminiscent of 16:9). Although it’s well-executed, it’s so stylistically different from his other photos that it feels very incongruous. Perdue maintains an active Flickr feed – the only one of the group that continuously updates his account.
Embattled incumbent Susan Collins’ fundraising page places the senator in a three-quarter pose in front of the stars of the U.S. flag. It is the most blatant use of patriotic iconography of the group. The lighting pattern is complex. The keylight looks to be supplemented with a reflector or secondary light. There’s a rim light on camera right that illuminates Collins’ hair and separated her dark blazer from the background. The flag is unevenly lit suggesting the use of a gobo or grid. It is a well-executed image, but Collins’ gaze is directed into the distance and not at the camera, and it almost feels like a mistake. The image appears lightly retouched to augment Collins’ make-up. She appears younger than contemporary video and photos suggest.
Collins maintains a photo gallery on her campaign website. Most photos look staged, and use supplemental light. With the exception of a few portraits, most of the images don’t look to be heavily retouched – instead relying on good lighting and make-up to enhance her appearance.
One of her high resolution portrait looks relatively naturalistic – maintaining detail around eyes, nose, mouth. However, her cheeks look airbrushed and her nasolabial folds look softened.
Challenger Sara Gideon’s fundraising page uses a lit environmental portrait with light retouching (hi res here). The perfectly coiffed Gideon is also lit by a hair light. It’s a well-produced image with the most naturalistic retouching of the group, however, her left arm is slightly cut off in the frame. From a compositional standpoint, it isn’t as successful because the large negative space in the left of the frame leaves more questions than answers.
Her campaign website has limited use of photography, and relies on the standard fare of meeting with constituents (in a mask), family photos, and in various clothing (suit, light puffer) to make her more relatable. The images don’t appear to be retouched – a logical choice given Gideon’s youthful appearance and good looks.
Given the popularity of social media, it’s not surprising that campaign websites generally de-emphasize photography and utilize a range of quality from produced, almost lifestyle-esque to lower quality “my campaign aide took this photo of me.” But the inconsistency of retouching skill is surprising in an era of increasingly automated software and incredibly inexpensive freelancers. The desire to appear more youthful or appealing through retouching isn’t restricted to a single gender, age, or geography.
While it might be true that “everyone is a photographer” now, it is also true that everyone is not a retoucher nor a photo editor with the skill to select and edit images to cast politicians in their best light.