The New York Times June 17, 1997

Among photographers, it's called digital dieting: the digital enhancement used on celebrity and model photographs today, making the subjects look freakishly flawless. But the same technology that has long been the subject's friend has grown to encompass an entirely new art form that some people now see as the enemy. Photography with digital doctoring is so far from the conventional journalistic art where seeing is believing that Richard Avedon suggests giving it a new name.

''There is no such thing as photographic reality,'' Mr. Avedon said. ''You cannot believe a photograph.'' Mr. Avedon has been manipulating his images, not on a computer but by hand, since about 1953, when Marella Agnelli's swanlike neck was elongated even further for effect. ''I feel I have the right to interpret my subject as an artist,'' he said. ''And photography is an art.''

That right is being questioned now by Mira Sorvino, who took issue with photos by David LaChapelle that were digitally altered to portray her as Joan Crawford in the May issue of Allure. Mr. LaChapelle is certain to influence the work of a new generation of photographers in the same way that Mr. Avedon pioneered so much of what is familiar today.

But Mr. LaChapelle is just one of a growing band for whom the photo is only the beginning. Under their influence, the idea of the sanctity of the negative is on its way to becoming the most important issue in modern photography. The fact that photography is being redefined as illustrative invention is jarring to those who think of photos as truth. ''That's an interesting concept: where to find reality,'' said Mr. LaChapelle, who is in Los Angeles this week shooting the cover for the Fleetwood Mac reunion album. ''It used to be you turned to photos for that. People say photos don't lie. Mine do. I make mine lie.''

Mr. Avedon said that of all the photographers inventing surreal images, it was Mr. LaChapelle who has the potential to be the genre's Magritte. Magritte didn't need complicity with a subject. And in many ways, the new generation of photographers doesn't either. The independence of photographers like Mr. LaChapelle was made glaringly clear in the controversy fanned by Ms. Sorvino. No one seems to know exactly why Ms. Sorvino was unhappy at being portrayed as Joan Crawford. ''Her reasoning behind not wanting to do a certain image doesn't matter,'' said Mara Buxbaum, her agent at PMK Public Relations. When she posed for Allure's ''Hollywood Babylon'' shoot, she was fine recreating other creepy settings like the lobotomized Frances Farmer with her brain in a jar. And she has also not complained about digital retouching on the same photo that perfected her skin, lengthened her legs, and thinned her waist.

But while Ms. Sorvino thought she was posing as Marlene Dietrich, she was later digitally given big eyebrows and cruel lips, with a model playing Christina Crawford superimposed beside her, like ''Mommie Dearest.''

The issue has become one of artists' rights: Ms. Sorvino's to appear as she'd like, and Mr. LaChapelle's to create the image he'd like. ''Editorial is a laboratory,'' Mr. LaChapelle said. ''There's a place where I do execute other people's ideas. It's called advertising. I'm not there to do what the publicists want.''

It isn't only the seamlessness of the computer work that has caused anxiety. It is the pervasiveness of it and its limitless potential. On the computer, any photo of Ms. Sorvino that exists could be made to look like Joan Crawford. Or Fatty Arbuckle, for that matter. For artists like Mr. LaChapelle, Nick Knight, Inez van Lamsweerde, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Raymond Meier and Jean-Paul Goude, making the photography unbelievable, more astonishing than life, is the goal.

''It is the single most important step in photography since its invention,'' Mr. Knight said, referring to digital technology. He has just shot the latest Christian Dior campaign, and he works regularly with Alexander McQueen, most recently on Bjork's new album art. ''It's going to completely alter how we approach photography in the future,'' he said. ''Photography has been burdened with the responsibility of showing reality since its invention. It isn't a good medium to do that.''

Photographers like Mr. Knight and Mr. LaChapelle construct a photograph from its inception with an eye to what will be done digitally to it later. The work on such photos is considered so important today that it isn't unusual for the image-manipulation artist to be given a separate credit in magazines. Stephen Gan, who works with many of the photographers in Visionaire magazine, said for artists like Mr. Goude, the credit often reads ''image making.''

''These photographers have become storytellers, almost illustrators,'' he said. The resulting image truly has never been seen before, because, of course, it never existed. ''I'm taking photos for a generation that grew up in a time of provocative images,'' Mr. LaChapelle said. ''I'm part of what I consider the entertainment industry. For my photos to be entertaining, they have to be provocative and new.'' Mr. LaChapelle's Crawford photo has created a brouhaha among those who control celebrity images, as if such art-department tricks were something new.

''Fashion magazines and other magazines have improved or thought they improved pictures forever,'' said Patrick McCarthy, the chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Publications, which owns Los Angeles Magazine, in addition to Women's Wear Daily and W. ''You get into issues of how far do you go. If the dress didn't look good in blue, do you do it in red? Maybe you shouldn't. But you can't assume a fashion photo is a U.P.I. picture of a war zone.'' Dustin Hoffman is suing Los Angeles Magazine for dressing his image from ''Tootsie,'' on the computer, in Richard Tyler.

''They made him an involuntary model, and he's suing on that ground and other grounds,'' said Bert Fields, Mr. Hoffman's lawyer. He said of digital imaging: ''It's fascinating because there is no area of the law. There are going to be cases all over the place dealing with what happens when you put a computer to work.'' The official Allure stance, from its editor in chief, Linda Wells, is that the issue is between Ms. Sorvino and Mr. LaChapelle. Which is odd, considering that the magazine regularly doctors celebrity photos, giving them double chins (Ms. Sorvino got one in June 1996) or new noses.

Even photography presumed to be true isn't always. For years, Mr. Avedon has switched heads with bodies he liked better. In the new Givenchy advertising he shot with Mr. McQueen last week, he switched one model's head in a photo with her body in another.

And in a feat that has become legendary in the industry, Nucleus Imaging, a leading digital retouching company in New York, took Karl Lagerfeld's photos of Princess Caroline of Monaco and made a cover for Harper's Bazaar by grafting skin from one frame, hair from another, the face from yet another, and the body from another. It was done with a Macintosh and a silicone graphics computer, which has been used for special effects in films for years.

''Ultimately, digital imaging is another gadget in the photographer's camera bag,'' said Jon Rosen, the owner of Nucleus Imaging. ''Photography was always filled with illusions. Where do you draw the line? Half these people talking about ethics had wedding pictures done with soft focus on them. There is no genuine question of ethics.'' Mr. LaChapelle stresses that photography will never be completely supplanted. ''The computer is the slave to the photograph,'' he said. ''You have to start with an interesting image.''

Which means there is a downside to efficient manipulation. Just as there is no way of knowing what photos are real, there is no way of knowing when conventional photography has produced an amazing image. For instance, Mr. LaChapelle's current Detour cover of Uma Thurman is otherworldly but was not digitally enhanced, he said. And Mr. Avedon's photo of a giant chair with models hanging from it, to advertise Versace, was indeed a giant chair with models hanging from it.

By Amy M. Spindler

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