That Was Then

The art of the before-and-after photograph.

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Tweets get more press, Youtube clips boast a better market cap, blog rants have nostalgia working in their favor — but is there any mode of expression more suited to the web than the before-and-after photo? TakeTwo, a new iPhone app, allows aficionados of the form to use their “before” photos as visual overlays when composing their follow-ups — thus ensuring close matches of perspective and other pictorial variables in shots that may end up being taken months or years apart.

 

It’s a useful tool, but the truth is the before-and-after photo has been ready for the current era of ruthlessly short attention spans and hyper-efficient communication strategies for well over 100 years now. In an 1897 edition of the Denver Medical Times, a contributor notes how well the “before and after photographs” in a volume he’s reviewing express “the great benefits to be derived from scientific orthopedic surgery.” Another magazine from 1897, The Land of Sunshine, uses the before-and-after conceit to illustrate the repairs preservationists have made to several Spanish missions in California.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Madame C.J. Walker — an African-American entrepreneur who made a fortune selling hair care products — demonstrated the dramatic results her wares could deliver via advertisements that used before-and-after photos of Madame Walker herself. Like the Hair Club for Men’s Cy Sperling, she wasn’t just the president of her company; she was also a client.

In Madame Walker’s “before” photo, her hair is short and kinky. In two “after” shots, it’s long, silky, and luxurious. In this regard, the sequence helped establish the parameters of the before-and-after format in the realm of advertising. The technique wasn’t just for showing incremental change. It was for showing fantastic, life-altering transformations, metamorphoses so amazing they’d be downright unbelievable were they not being depicted in a medium as ostensibly incapable of deceit as photography. Hucksters pitching diet pills, acne creams, and other magical self-improvement nostrums might be prone to exaggerate, but the camera didn’t — couldn’t — lie. Could it? Via the before-and-after ad, advertisers learned that the best way to push advertising to its most manipulative and irresistibly implausible limits was to cloak it in the sober, exacting, scientific garb of photojournalism.

Over time, the conventions of the before-and-after ads revealed themselves. It doesn’t matter if the ad is meant to advertise the services of a weight-loss regimen, a cosmetic dentist, or a hair replacement system. In the “before” image, the subject is badly lit, dressed in ways that highlight his shortcomings, and rarely smiling. Often, these photos resemble mug shots, as if being fat or bald or cursed with dingy incisors is in fact a crime. In the “after” photo, the lighting is better, the subject is smiling, and her clothes are more expensive. When you lose 50 pounds, or fix your teeth, or cover your bald spot, such photos insinuate, the universe grows more benevolent. You start hanging out with more skilled photographers. Your sense of style expands in direct correlation with your shrinking waistline.

Before-and-after photography has applications beyond advertising, of course — it’s used to show the devastating impact of natural disasters, the slower alterations caused by urban sprawl. But ultimately it depicts most powerfully human transformation — and that’s what makes it such an effective marketing tool for cosmetic dentists, hair extension artists, diet pill marketers.

In the service of commerce, however, great art emerges. “The problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformation, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of ‘and then’) and the latter belong to art,” Leonard Michaels writes in his 1986 essay, “What’s a Story?”

These days, text is too wordy and even action movies get bogged down in ironic one-liners. TV shows such as Extreme Makeover, The Biggest Loser, and What Not to Wear understand the appeal of radical transformation, but they’ve got hours and hours of airtime to fill and thus turn the natural concision of before-and-after photos into a degraded, exploitative, slow-moving form of visual torture.

On the web, though, the before-and-photo flourishes in its ideal state, as stripped down and essential a form of storytelling as a Henny Youngman joke. Here’s what Cameron Diaz looks like before and after her makeup has been applied. Here’s what some forgotten celebrities from the past look like after decades out of the limelight. In the super-efficient world of the web, it’s just set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline, with the trudge of “and then” disappearing like Faith Hill’s eye-bags and back fat after the Photoshop wizards in Redbook’s art department have had their way with her.

But if the Internet values the brevity of the before-and-after photo, it’s also helped to broaden the form as well. In the world of before-and-after advertising, “once upon a times” segue almost exclusively into “happily ever afters” — Look at my new hair! Look at my new boobs! Look at my new smile! At websites like Faces of Meth, however, the traditional dynamic of the before-and-after ad is reversed. While radical weight loss and abundant hair growth are often a part of the proceedings, there are no “happily ever afters” here. Instead, it’s just instant pathos as photogenic but doomed individuals who have the misfortune to keep getting arrested by the same police departments go from hard luck and bad choices to unspeakable tragedy. Give Jonathan Franzen 10,000 pages to fill, and he’d be hard-pressed to pack in as much misery, as much mystery, as much fragile complicated humanity, as the average meth-head diptych does. • 25 March 2011

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.

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