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Friday, 24 October 2008


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Something strange besides the missing cigarette. Isn't the first class rate now 42 cents?

I'm having trouble getting too excited about this one.

First, because stamps are regularly massively changed from the original photograph to suit the needs/whims/aesthetics of the Post Office. They ain't historical documentation. This one just happened to push some people's buttons.

Second, because it *is* just about buttons. I don't think it looks bad-- frankly, I've seen a lot less natural and graceful and more contrived-looking hand positions in any number of Karsch portraits. I seriously doubt most folks will be bothered by it.

Third, because I have a hell of a lot of trouble feeling TOO bad about anything that might, in any small way, discomfort tobacco companies.

That said, some of the reader submissions on the Ebert site are really brilliant! Regardless of how you feel about the stamp, do check those out.

pax / Ctein

I hate to tell you, but the stamp is 42 cents.I know because we have a post office in our business :)

Isn't this just the nuttiest thing you ever saw?! I read this piece last week and could only shake my head. People sure have a tendency to overdo political correctness.

No, not over the line.

Tobacco companies have willingly and knowingly lead countless people to an early death by portraying smoking as an acceptable part of normal life - many times, specifically targeting children - with images just like this one.

As innocuous as it may seem to you and me, as educated and experienced adults, a carefully placed cigarette in a romantic portrait is going to lead, somewhere, somehow, to some vulnerable person thinking that taking up smoking can't be all that bad - and, in the case of a stamp, it would be your and my tax dollars paying for it.

Perhaps a better choice would have been to not have a stamp honoring Bette Davis.


I'm a little confused by your comment because "Yes reader, the cigarette in the original photo has been eliminated." because as one of the blogers on the site you referred us to points out that, "We have SEEN the original still photo which the portrait is based on. It is here:
http://classicmoviefavorites.com/davis/davis051.jpg" and in this photo there IS NO cigarette.

Secondly, as a public health professional and as someone whose father died a slow and painful death from congestive heart failure due to smoking a pack a day of camels for 40 years, I really disagree with your statement that "this is carrying the anti-smoking campaign one step over the line?"

Thanks for a great site. I'm here most every day. Sorry my first post is critical.

OK. A little much, perhaps, to sanitize from a commemorative stamp a ubiquitous prop of that era and particularly this persona. But it is the government, which does have a public health mission, and I'm inclined to cut them some slack in choosing between mild censorship and mild hypocrisy. Of course another solution would have been using one of many images of Davis that do not have a butt showing.

I also know that vintage movies starring Davis, Bogart, Bacall, Dean et al instilled a fascination with cigarettes in my youthful self. Many years and thousands of cigarettes later, it so happened that an interest in vintage cameras and photography helped me quit smoking. If it had been up to me, I would have replaced that cigarette with a cable release.

'Tis not my comment, nor my statement! I didn't write that piece, Roger Ebert did.

Mike J.

I have to say it's OK.

My father died of lung cancer, and my step-father had a massive heart attack.

Dr. Kohn, the cardiologist asked "Do you smoke?" My step-father nodded yes. "You don't anymore," Dr. Kohn said.

As a former smoker myself I certainly appreciate avoiding the little subtle cues that, as others have suggested, might offer tacit consent to smokers. Both of my parents also died of illnesses that were certainly related to their heavy smiking habits.

But I still find this edited image of Bette Davis absurd. Davis was one of the most photographed celebrities of her era. Certainly there were thousands of appropriate images available to the USPS that did not feature her with a cigarette. So why choose one that had to be "cleansed"? It's simply an in-your-face gesture, like making an oversized print of your family with your ex-spouse edited out.

I used to be impressively good at smoking cigarettes. Now I surf the internet.

The Ronald Reagan ad in the article is enough to put anyone off smoking for life. Why not just slap that on a stamp?

OK, this has now moved into the realm of hilarity and irony.

Turns out after all the foohfahrah (sp??) that no cigarette was eliminated, a bunch of folks just went ballistic because they IMAGINED a cigarette had been eliminated.

Even if one thought this was an issue of political correctness (and folks who blame everything they don't like on PC give me a very swift pain in the butt), who's acting EXCESSIVELY PC this time? The folks who are up in arms over an imagined slight? Isn't that normally the stereotype that's flung with charges of PC?

Well, guess what, buckos, this time it's the "ohmigawd you dared to mess with our history" folks. The ones who've been tossing PC about like it means something. They've met the enemy and it is them.

I, for one, am delighted. Maybe it will discourage a few of them from hurling charges the next time they think it's a new front on the culture wars?

Yeah, I'm an optimist, I know. Part of my charm.

(and I still don't find anything odd in the hand position, so there, nyah nyah (he said with characteristic maturity))

pax / some-of-my-best-friends-smoke-Ctein

P.S. When Ebert writes his embarassed retraction, please provide the link, Mike?

Comparing the two pictures, to me it looks like two different moments in a photo session. The stamp picture may be a B&W photo colorised by hand, as they were doing in the 50s.

The more I look at these two pictures, the more I'm fascinated by Bette Davis different expressions, with a definitive preference for the B&W picture which carries a lot of humanity thru the eyes and the lips.

On the stamp picture the expression is more generic, with a little touch of teasing in the smile. If you imagine some smoke raising from a cigarette in her glove, it becomes an advertising for the tobacco industry. This is unlikely IMHO : her hand simply hold her coat.

(sorry for the bad english)


From The Smiths/What she said:
What she said:
"I smoke 'cos I'm hoping for an
Early death

Could it be that everyone here took the bait?

Comparing the stamp to the portrait, it looks to me like the artist is actually PROTESTING the no-cigarette ban. Why else modify the hand position to so strongly suggest a missing cigarette?

Maybe the joke is on us.


Regarding Mike's question – "why has the artist repositioned her hand just so", I think it is an issue of drapery folds. First, needing to fit the size of the stamp, the artist had to increase the amount of her coat shown. So then she or he decided to get all fancy with the drapery, and had to adapt the hand to make it make sense. I don't think the artist did a great job with the drapery folds*, actually–they seem more to reference a 20's-style abstraction rather than a 50's kind of modernism, so their stylization feels out of place to me. But regardless of that aside, the hand position is necessary to make sense of that mess of coat, and I think that the hand position only implies a cigarette if you are looking for it, i.e. if you've been primed by the idea of the first image.

On the smoking issue... can you imagine how hard the post office would've been hit if they HAD included a cigarette? Roger Ebert would have seemed like a cute little puppy when they let the big dogs loose!

*I'm willing to consider that the drapery might look better in the original, and that the postage stamp is not the best medium for visual details, but maybe the artist should have thought of that...

I agree with Ctein re the PC of self-appointed critics of PC.

Why did the artist move Davis's hand? How about, to make a better composition? Given the narrow aspect ratio of the stamp, if the hand had remained where it was in the photo, it would have been in the extreme lower right corner of the stamp, under the postage. The upright arm and first two fingers make more compositional sense on the tall, narrow stamp. The closed third and fourth fingers, as ben says, give the hand a reason to be there: holding the coat closed.

(Or maybe the hand gesture is a secret Masonic symbol designed to convey Hollywood's allegiance to the Illuminati World Conspiracy. I take the fact that all other commentators have suppressed this obvious possibility as evidence that it must be so.)

"why has the artist repositioned her hand just so"

I think it was simply done for compositional purposes. The hand in the original position was drawing the attention away from the face a little bit.

simply buy the stamps and draw that cig in on every one you send..

Dear Folks,

Ben's done a pretty good job of describing the likely wheres and whys of this illustration (need to recompose, keep arm from looking like it's floating in air, etc.). Now, let me elaborate on what goes on in the mind of a cover artist (I know lots; I've even been one).

Stamps like this are cover illos, same as on books and small magazines. The cover artist is guided by several factors beyond (and more important than) aesthetic intent. One is layout-- the design must leave room for the important type, in this case, name at top and denomination in lower corner. You don't want important design elements under the type. That makes a simple reframing and slight adjustment of the hand on the original photo unworkable. Either the hand goes entirely or it has to be moved a LOT.

Another is "focus." What's the point of the cover. In this case, it's a face portrait. So that's where you put most of the detail, both because it mimicks the way people see things in the real world, and because it draws viewers' attention to the point. (You could call that an 'aesthetic' decision, but it rarely rises to that level, it's mostly goal-driven technical.)

By the way, you'll notice this same technique in many professional and classical oil painting portraits. Lots of detail in the faces (and hands or props if they're important), backgrounds and incidental clothing get done in broad, smooth, low-contrast strokes that don't distract the eye.

Paramount is scale: what size will the final work be reproduced? You need enough detail to "fill the space." But you don't want important detail to be invisibly small. On a practical level, you don't put in detail you don't care about and the viewer will never see, because it's wasted work, not money in your pocket!

(Also part of why oil portraits often have low-key, broad stroke backgrounds and clothing. Gotta make a living wage!)

Keep in mind that the image you're seeing on yur computer monitor is about twice life-size. The hands and folds in the fur coat look quite good shrunk to real postage stamp size.

The cover artist, in my judgement, did a very good job, meeting all these requirements.

I'm less positive I'm right about the following, but I think the artist was informed by many photos when it came to subtle details (as good portrait painters often are). This is not a literal rendering of the PR picture-- the portrait differs in numerous small ways. The signature "Bette Davis eyes" and mouth are smaller and substantially less prominent in the stamp. The curl of the hand, even allowing for holding the coat, is different. But, they're right and unquestionably evocative of Davis. In fact, the eyes and mouth and are more similar in scale, and the hand in pose, to the ones in the Eve still.

Beyond this, I think trying the divine the inner motives of the cover artist is entertaining but useless.

pax / Ctein

I once knew someone who took up photography with a Lieca IIIf because she said it was the fiddly-est camera she could find, and was as cool a prop as a cigarette , cheaper too.

The photos turned out to be pretty interesting too.

Dear Hugh,


What's now running through my head is a mash-up of Paul Simon's "Kodachrome" and Kim Carn's (sp?) "She's Got Bette Davis Eyes."

Try it, it works!

(for some value of works)
(and we're back to Mike's second-favoritest topic-- music)

pax / freely-associating Ctein


Thanks for the correction. I totally missed the byline and just assumed you wrote the piece.

Certainly, we die from smoking, because we don't have anything else to die for:


I'm not sure whether this is about promoting the "glamour" of smoking. I think as a society we are all aware of the dangers and know it's just not a healthy decision. Many cities now ban smoking outright. It's no big secret anymore that the smokers of previous generations weren't aware of these dangers.

I think this is more about the subtle altering of our historical records. Some have argued that it's just a stamp. While many view this as postage, others view stamps as collectibles. My maternal grandmother was such an individual and I have inherited an impressive collection that, believe it or not, is an excellent documentary on the evolution of society.

The concern here is that some child (perhaps my child) will see this some day and say:

"Daddy who is this?"

"That is a famous actress from the 1960's..."

"Did't they all smoke back then?"

"A lot of them did, yes."

"Why isn't she?"

"Because they want to re-write history."

This is not about smoking versus not smoking. This is also not about altering photographs. Sadly, it's about the sublte ways in which our histories are re-written to be "politically correct" in a current culture that wants to obliterate anything from our sordid past.

To this I simply say, "Those who don't know about the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them..."

Dear Jason,

Three things-- first is that no history was rewritten in this case. The stamp is a fairly accurate depiction of a real photo from the period.

Second is that what you disparage as some modern 'political correctness' has been the normal process of writing histories for as long as histories have been written. If you are under some illusion that in the 'good old days' (whatever that may mean to you) you got an accurate rendering of history, unbiased and complete despite the (then) current beliefs and prejudices, it is time for you to drop it.

Finally, that would be a very good lesson to teach ANY child-- history is written by the victors, and even with the best of intentions, contains the biases and factual distortions of those victors.

But, again, in this case, there is no there, there. Nothing to see, move along, move along.

Which brings me to a blunder several of us (including, but not limited to you, me, and Ken) made. The solid proof that this was a false charge was there in the comments to Ebert's column! None of us bothered to read far enough into the comments to find this out.

This does not reflect well upon us. The Internet culture, at times, resembles witch-hunting mobs assembling, based on scant and unconfirmed infornation, all set to torch the cottage before determining if they really have the facts. It's distressing how easily one can fall into that crowd.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us," said Pogo.

pax / Ctein

Okay, so there was no reinterpretation of the photo. But there _is_ a huge, nay, humongous hypocrisy at work.

Countries ban smoking in closed public spaces, one after another. Films are made where there's no smoking whatsoever although the social environment depicted would certainly have people smoking. Smokers are relegated to the second-class citizen status.

At the same time, almost whenever the countries need more money, bang, price of cigarettes goes up. Either the cigarettes are harmful and they should be banned altogether or these ridiculous measures should be seriously thought about.

Coronary and vascular diseases are a terrible killer. Beside smoking, it's cholesterol and sugar that cause the diseases. The States suffer an epidemic of obesity and other Western world countries follow them. Has anybody started such a campaign to ban various hamburger joints and junk food as is currently waged against smoking? I don't think so.


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