State lawmakers vote 'no' on flaws, 'yes' to photo retouching

Staff writerMay 23, 2013 

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, had some gripes about his official legislative portrait after it was shot in 2011.

In a note digitally embedded in Benton’s photo — now posted on the Legislature’s website — a legislative staffer conveyed how Benton “would like to slightly ‘fix’ a few things about his picture.”

“He’d like to diminish the gap between the front two teeth,” the undated note said. “He’d like to decrease the bags under his eyes. He’d like to make the whites in the corner of his eyes slightly more white.”

Every two years, state legislators are asked to sit for official portraits that are used online, in the media and sometimes purchased for lawmakers’ re-election campaigns. They are far from untouched historical records, though.

Legislative photographers digitally smooth away lawmakers’ wrinkles, brush away stray hairs, erase birthmarks — and, if lawmakers ask, will perform digital dental work.

Still, not all lawmakers are happy with their photos, and some maintain an aura of youth on their state Web pages by using portraits that were shot several years ago.

An attorney for the state Senate said that the digital changes made to senators’ photos appear to violate the Senate’s photo-editing rules. The Senate’s digital photo policy states “the historical accuracy of a Senate photograph will not be changed or manipulated in any way.”

“We were unaware that this kind of retouching or photo alteration was going on,” Senate counsel Jeannie Gorrell said. “This situation gives us an opportunity to remind members and staff of our policy.”

This year, The News Tribune, in the process of uploading the lawmakers’ photos to the newspaper’s website, found six state senators’ official portraits that contained embedded notes suggesting how they should be digitally altered.

The newspaper filed a public records request for before-and-after photos of those six senators, as well as for eight randomly selected House members.

Compared with the 13 original photos the Legislature provided, the edited versions all showed signs of cosmetic digital retouching, including blurring of wrinkles and age spots, erasing of moles and whitening of teeth. The amount of retouching varied from photo to photo, with older lawmakers’ portraits generally showing more signs of digital alteration.

Compared with Benton’s original photo, his retouched portrait smoothed the skin under his eyes and lessened the gap between his two front teeth, as the note embedded in his photo had requested.

Benton did not return a reporter’s calls for comment.

State Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, was another senator whose staff had a “touch up suggestion” for her 2011 portrait, which is the one she now uses online.

“It would be great if you could smooth the color below her mouth, including her chin, make it a bit more creamy and less pink, especially on the right side as you look at the picture,” a staffer wrote in a note digitally embedded in Nelson’s photo.

“Her cheeks maybe could be a little less pink too, and making the color on her neck a little smoother would be great,” the note continued.

Compared with Nelson’s original photo, her official portrait shows her with whiter teeth, fewer wrinkles, and more uniform skin tone on her face and neck, as well as reduced dark circles under her eyes.

Nelson declined to be interviewed, but issued a written statement.

“Minor retouching is common in photography today,” Nelson said. “I am focused on the state budget and I believe that is what concerns the citizens of this state.”

Louie Balukoff, a former News Tribune staffer who worked as a photographer for the House in 2011, said the changes House photo staff made to lawmakers’ portraits that year were “pretty extensive.”

“They lightened all the shadows, the wrinkles, the crows’ feet, the bags under the eyes,” Balukoff said. “Then they built the final product.”

Balukoff said that former House photo supervisor LeMoyne Coates completed most of the touch-ups on legislators’ portraits during the 105-day session in 2011.

Coates, who is now deceased, made $5,957 a month in 2011, according to House payroll records.

“He spent half the session Photoshopping those (portraits),” Balukoff said.

The state House doesn’t have a written policy regarding digital photo manipulation, but is considering developing one, said Bernard Dean, deputy chief clerk of the House.

“We probably would want to clarify what sort of airbrushing would be appropriate and what wouldn’t be as far as Photoshopping,” Dean said.

Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, said he didn’t realize how much digital work was done on his portrait until recently, when House counsel showed him his unedited photo that was being released to The News Tribune.

Kirby said the alterations to his photo amounted to “a facelift,” and weren’t done at his request. He said he plans to ask legislative staff to use his unedited photo from now on.

“I’m proud of my wrinkles,” said Kirby, who is 61. “Those wrinkles come with experience, which gives you that wisdom that I claim to have.”

Kevin Pierce, the technology and media services manager for Legislative Support Services, said that some digital editing is considered standard for House and Senate portraits, such as adjusting lighting and removing “nonpermanent things like a blemish.”

Other more specific modifications could be performed when legislators ask for them, said Pierce, whose department oversaw legislative photo operations in 2013. Such editing is considered normal in portrait photography, he said.

Pierce said that lawmakers are asked to approve their official portraits after the editing process, so none of the digital corrections should come as a surprise.

It’s unclear how much time legislative employees devote to tweaking lawmakers’ portraits.

Pierce said he couldn’t say exactly how long the process takes. Legislative photo staff don’t keep hourly records documenting how they spend their workday, said Dean, the deputy chief clerk of the House.

“Most of the staff time is taken up with covering events and floor action,” Dean said.

Besides lawmakers asking staff to doctor their portraits, it also is common for them to reject their most recent official photos and opt to use older portraits online and in the media, Pierce said.

Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, uses a portrait on his legislative website that was taken in 2002, according to the photo’s digital profile. The photos for Rep. Mike Sells, Rep. Joel Kretz, Rep. Judy Clibborn, Rep. Sherry Appleton and House Speaker Frank Chopp were shot in 2004, according to the images’ metadata.

“If they had a 2011 image out on the website and they didn’t like the new one (from 2013), we just didn’t put it out there,” Pierce said.

Melissa Santos:
360-357-0209
msantos@theolympian.com

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