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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Brittany Holloway-Brown
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Brittany Holloway-Brown

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The Perfect Family, Courtesy of Photoshop

What we lose when we alter family photos

This year is my son's second Christmas, and I insisted on getting a family portrait to mark the occasion.

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I justified it as a gift for the whole family, since we have pathetically few photos together. We didn't do a maternity photo shoot or get any newborn photos taken. I shooed away the hospital photographer who popped into my room a few hours after I gave birth. The images of our lives exist mostly on my iPhone or in the cloud, and even then, it's scattershot: There are some candids of my husband here, a few selfies of myself there. As far as photos are concerned, we're rarely a family unit.

I wanted proof of our existence together, just one moment in time in which we're all bathed, smiling, and hopefully wearing cute, color-coordinated outfits. So I searched for a local photographer, checked out a few reviews online, and settled on someone who was affordable and had many satisfied customers. After booking the appointment, the photographer and I traded a few emails. When we discussed aesthetics, I used the words "natural" and "simple," and said I wanted to avoid anything fake or cartoony. We agreed to meet at a park near the mountains, just outside the desert where I live.

A few days after the photoshoot, I was at a business lunch when the photographer emailed me three digital files as a "sneak peek." The message pinged on my phone, and I held my breath as each photo downloaded at an excruciatingly slow pace.

I'm always nervous when I look at myself in photos, which is probably why I don't end up in many of them. There's a vast difference between how I think I look and the actual photographic evidence, so the result is jarring, like hearing my own voice played back on a voicemail.

"Whoa," I exhaled as the first image took shape on the screen.

The woman was me, I suppose, but not all of me. This woman's waist was wasp-like, and she had no post-baby stomach pooch.

I didn't recognize the woman in the photos, though she was wearing my green sweater dress and standing with my family. She had no wrinkles. No tributaries of lines around the eyes or deep parentheses to set off her smile. Her cheeks were pink, and her teeth were toothpaste-commercial white. Her nose was thin, and it definitely didn't have a bump from the time she skidded across a gravel road on her face. The woman was me, I suppose, but not all of me. This woman's waist was wasp-like. She had no post-baby stomach pooch. Her hips were slender with nary a ripple of Spanx.

I looked amazing. It was exactly the way I'd always hoped to look in photos. Some days I wake up, look in the mirror, and realize my face is like a Picasso painting —€” and not in a good way. All the components of a face are there, but they're scrambled and weird, like a nose on my chin and an eye on my cheek. It requires make-up and serums and spackle to return everything to its proper place. This photo was the opposite of that. Everything was right. It was like waking up, looking in the mirror, and seeing Amal Clooney.

"Have I always been this hot?" I handed the phone to my colleague, who zoomed in on the image.

"Who is that?" he said.

"It's me," I said. "I think."

"Is there a thumbprint on your face?" he asked, handing the phone back to me. He was right; my face appeared in soft focus. It reminded me of the television show Moonlighting, in which a young Bruce Willis always appeared crisp and snappy, but all the shots of Cybill Shepherd were filmy and slightly blurred.

In the next photo, my son was pictured holding the rope on a rustic, antique sled. Around him, picturesque snow fell. The thing is, we live in Palm Springs, California, a sunny locale that hasn't seen actual snow since 1979. Even with the park serving as a natural backdrop, snow was really pushing it.

In the final image, my family was arranged on a pretty blanket in front of wispy trees. Our teeth gleamed. Our skin was luminous. My face was light and flawless, while my Asian husband's complexion was smoothed, bronze. Behind us, off to the left, a deer looked toward the camera with alarm, stopped mid-graze, as though he had just walked off the set of a Disney movie and trotted into my family portrait.

Of course, there was no deer in the park that day. There was no snow. And no, my husband wasn't that tan, and I wasn't nearly that slim, pale, and attractive. Our cozy family pictures had been dramatically Photoshopped, airbrushed into something that wasn't our reality.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, family photographs were colored and tinted to simulate traditional painted portraits.

I understand that most photography involves some forms of touch-up. Colors are heightened, the saturation adjusted, lines sharpened. Flaws are subtracted, and blemishes are removed. As long as there have been photos, there has been photo manipulation. An iconic 1860 portrait of Abraham Lincoln is actually a mash-up: It's the president's head stitched onto politician John Calhoun's body, according to digital forensics expert Hany FaridIn the early 1900s, studios created composite portraits, using repeated exposures to bring together family members in a single image, even if they weren't together in real life. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, family photographs were colored and tinted using a variety of techniques to simulate traditional, painted portraits.

So this isn't an admonition of the photographer, whose skills are substantial. I asked for festive holiday photos, and she delivered. My squad looks like the picture-perfect, rosy-cheeked family, an appropriate visual to stuff inside Christmas cards, share glad tidings of joy, and make ex-boyfriends jealous. It's everything my more superficial side could have wanted.

Of course, I'm no one to talk. My Facebook profile photo is a selfie that I cropped, tweaked, and filtered until I felt satisfied with the flawless complexion and dark eyes staring back at me. My Instagram is a perfectly curated, carefully cropped sliver of my real life. When other people tag me in photos that I find unflattering, I am quick to untag myself —€” to pretend as though that version of me never existed. We all do this to some extent.

But at what point is a Photoshopped family portrait too much? When I'm whittled down to a younger, shinier version of myself? When woodland creatures are drawn to me as though I'm Snow White? Or when my son is surrounded by a form of precipitation he hasn't yet seen in real life?

The whole goal of this photo session was to capture my family the way we are now. Time is shooting by, a slender comet whooshing just out of reach. At night I scroll through the photos on my phone and wonder what happened to the wee baby who used to fall asleep on my chest. My wriggling infant is suddenly leaping, scaling the furniture, and running past me — and all I did was blink. Next thing you know, he's going to be asking to borrow the keys to the Camaro. And I don't even own a Camaro.

This professional family photo was my feeble attempt to hit pause. But if the purpose of family photographs is to capture a memory, what happens when that memory is a fabricated one?

Some small part of me is ashamed to admit how comfortable I am with the alterations.

"You're imprinting an event on your child that never happened," my colleague said when he saw the photo of snow falling around my son. "This is the kind of thing that sends people into therapy."

I think of the tangled childhood narratives I hold in my head. I remember the time my brother broke the family TV and blamed it on the babysitter, even though I wasn't there — or born yet. I've just heard relatives recount the story enough to visualize it. I wonder if my son will someday look at himself in the snow image and concoct a vague memory of frolicking in the woods, of feeling fat, wet snowflakes on his face. I wonder if he will ask why he wasn't wearing gloves, or even a coat.

"It's not real, but family photos have never been real," my husband said. His comment reminded me of a Christmas photo I had taken at the Sears portrait studio when I was about six or seven. I'm grinning in a bright corduroy jumper, clutching a stuffed Santa doll, kneeling in front of a fake fireplace. In all the years I've looked at that image, I've hardly even noticed the fire. The fire has never been the point.

I remain conflicted about the Photoshopped holiday photos. Mostly, I reject the photos and am offended that my face inspired dramatic retouching, but some small part of me is ashamed to admit how comfortable I am with the alterations. We're still untangling the effect our Instagram moment is having on our visual identities. But it's when I remember why I wanted family photos in the first place that I start caring less about my own appearance, whether in the holiday portraits or on my phone.

Someday I think I'll look back on these photos and see past the improbable cheekbones and my Kim Kardashian-like hourglass body. I hope I'll only see my arm encircling my son, the easy way he leans into me, my smiling husband by my side. And I will remember the day I dragged my family to a desert mountain in color-coordinated outfits and tried my best to preserve everything we had. Because that is what's real.

Maggie Downs is an award-winning journalist who lives in Palm Springs.


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