It was made to order for a Saturday NYT front page.
Sarah Maslin Nir, the highly visible NYT freelancer who has recently been covering education for the Metro section, delivered a delicious trend story this morning on how kids now get their school photos retouched to remove unsightly scars and imperfections.
Only one problem: it's not a trend at all.
As any photographer -- or former high school student -- can tell you, school photographers have been retouching photos for decades to remove blemishes, scars and other elements that might mar a permanent portrait. It has been standard practice since at least the 1950s, a fact conveniently missing from Nir's story.
Instead, Nir presents this as a new phenomenon, using the standard buzzwords of trend reporting:
The practice of altering photos, long a standard in the world of glossy magazines and fashion shoots, has trickled down to the wholesome domain of the school portrait. Parents who once had only to choose how many wallet-size and 5-by-7 copies they wanted are now being offered options like erasing scars, moles, acne and braces, whitening teeth or turning a bad hair day into a good one.
School photography companies around the country have begun to offer the service on a widespread basis over the past half-dozen years, in response to parents’ requests and to developments in technology that made fixing the haircut a 5-year-old gave herself, or popping a tooth into a jack-o’-lantern smile, easy and inexpensive. And every year, the companies say, the number of requests grows.
But if you need any proof that this phenomenon has been around a while, just take a look at the 179 comments on the piece on the NYT website -- 32 of which specifically recall their own photos being retouched as long ago as the 1950s, and remark that the story reports nothing new at all.
Here's a typical comment, from Norman Baxley of Urbana, Illinois:
It was common practice in early portrait photography to retouch negatives, particularly 4X5" and larger. It was done by applying graphite directly to the surface of the negative. Since dark bags under the eyes and zits are clear on the negative, filling in these areas with graphite caused them to print lighter....Go back and look at high school yearbooks from the mid sixties and earlier and you won't find many zits in the black and white photos!
Or this, from Barbara Leary of Amesbury, Massachusetts:
I am a high school newspaper and yearbook advisor. In a portrait type photo we would almost always remove temporary deformities such as a scratch, pimple, or stray hair as a matter of course....The person who said photos were retouched 40 years ago is correct. Look at a yearbook from 1950 or 60 and you won't see kids with zits all over their portraits....This is NOT another case of our society becoming more fake. It has always been done.
And there are 30 more, making the same point -- that the notion that this is a new practice is false.
By the way, this isn't even the first time this phony trend has been reported recently -- it had been done in Feburary of 2008 in Newsweek. So even if editors bought Nir's faulty thesis, why did they put it on page one?
It may have something to do with Nir, a rising freelance star at the NYT who began contributing to the paper in 2008. Earlier this year Nir was named "The Nocturnalist," a weekly column for the City Room blog that reports on New York nightlife. More recently, Nir has been writing high-profile education stories for the paper.
Today's feature marked Nir's solo page one NYT debut. Unfortunately for her, it's not going to be so easy to airbrush out this story's flaws.
UPDATE: Late this evening, Nir briefly posted two Twitter comments (at her Twitter feed, @NYTNocturnalist) in response to our post, but then took them down. Fortunately we were able to get a screen grab before they disappeared: