Friday, March 10, 2017

Sidebar: 1920's makeup vs. 1920's photography

For a photoshoot for an upcoming 1929 coat, I thought it would be fun to do authentic 1920's makeup and photography.  Naturally, I researched the heck out of both these things.

It turns out that the goth makeup we associate with the 1920's-- heavy eye makeup and dark, almost black, lipstick-- aren't period-accurate.  Instead, most color magazines and makeup guides of the time show bright red lips, lots of rouge, and pale eyeshadow in blue, green, violet, and brown.  The look I was going for was Ms. Shaping The Brows here.

Out-of-camera JPEG
Things get interesting when we bring photography into the picture.  Film from the early 1920's (orthochromatic film) was sensitive to blue light, but relatively insensitive to reds, oranges, and yellows.  We humans tend to have pink and peachy tones in our faces, which made for some very creative stage makeup in an effort to make the actors to look normal on film. 

I made a Lightroom preset off of the color wheel provided at the link (see bottom of post for details).  Applied to my photo above, we get the photo below. 
Orthochromatic film simulation, ca. early 1920's
Holy wow, do I look terrible!  No wonder they needed special UV lights and stage makeup for anyone to look halfway decent.


In the mid-1920's, a new type of film came into effect (panchromatic film), which was sensitive to the entire spectrum.  I made another Lightroom preset off the provided color wheel, and here again is what my portrait looks like.
Panchromatic film simulation, ca. late 1920's
You can see why studios had to radically alter the way they did stage makeup-- panchromatic film is worlds different (and better) at representing skin tones than orthochromatic film. 

 It still looks a little flat, though, so here's my own B&W version of the image, postprocessed in Lightroom.
Postprocessing in Lightroom

There are several points to be made here.  First, we generally assume that photography necessarily gives an accurate representation of the world around us.  This is not the case.  Photography is always governed by the technical capabilities of the recording medium.  This is no less true today.  For instance, this is the RAW file of my portrait with no postprocessing applied-- this is what my camera sensor saw.
No postprocessing applied to the RAW file
Even though this is the version of the photo with the least processing applied, it's clearly not an accurate representation of the real world. 

Let's be a little generous and say that the camera got the white balance wrong.  Here's what Lightroom thinks the white balance should be:
RAW file with white balance fixed
Now, here's the out-of-camera JPEG.  This is the result of the postprocessing my camera did using the default settings. 
Out-of-camera JPEG
It's a lot better, but the colors are still a little too cool.  Is it objective reality?  Well, probably not.  There's a surprising amount of variation in the JPEG output of camera brands.  Take this test carried out by The Camera Store TV.  If cameras' JPEG engines were capturing reality, we would expect the results to be identical.  They're not.

Maybe we can't expect a cold, hard machine to nail something as complex as JPEG processing.  Maybe we need a human touch, an artist's touch.  Here's the image postprocessed by me in Lightroom:
Postprocessed by me in Lightroom
The colors are warmer, which is good.  You might think I overdid it on the saturation, but I really did rouge my cheeks that much (back to 1920's sensibilities being different from our own).  And yeah, I got rid of the blemishes on my chin.  This is the sort of thing people complain about when they denounce photoshopping.  Is it vanity?  Partly, sure.  This is the sort of thing people try to hide with makeup, after all.  I thought about hitting it with concealer, but for me, it's just easier to deal with in post.  But, it's also an artistic decision.  I was going for a Tamara de Lempicka effect with this portrait-- the glamour, the defiant gaze.  Was the blemish on my chin adding to that effect, or detracting from it?  Detracting.  So, it had to go. 

Forget the question of whether a photo depicts reality or not.  Instead-- do you like the art?  Do you like the message the art conveys?  If not, why not?  And, if you don't like the message, criticize the people making the artistic decisions, not the tools.  The tools will always be a necessary part of the mechanics of photography.  Photoshop is just a smokescreen distracting from the larger issue. 



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Orthochromatic film simulation in Lightroom:
Red -96
Orange -89
Yellow -91
Green -93
Aqua -80
Blue -31
Purple +53
Magenta +58

Panchromatic film simulation in Lightroom:
Red -10
Orange -19
Yellow -11
Green -69
Aqua -76
Blue -100
Purple +15
Magenta +3
 

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