Are you a working professional? Then you retouch. That’s a bit abrasive, forgive me, but that’s the truth. If there’s any doubt about this in your mind, I urge you to consider spending some time looking up retouching tutorials and their popularity. You can search for a minute or a month and you will see no end in sight. From instructional videos on how to remove a pimple from your face on prom night, to turning your date’s wild hair that looks like it belongs on the fields of the Serengeti into something that belongs in a Pantene commercial, to how to turn a geek into a muscled freak; anything is possible. So you’ll never have to wonder if you could, but rather more importantly if you should. When it comes to Photoshop, or broader digital retouching, there are ethics involved.
There’s a sort of dichotomy of personalities when it comes to retouching. Typically, it’s either viewed enthusiastically with the wonder of a child whose just witnessed for the first time a rabbit pulled from a hat, or with a bit of disdain. As photographers, we unite as a paradox that is made up of both, and so the discussion is somewhat never-ending. It’s always interesting to hear from the most major of players how they view retouching – if they vilify it, or defend it, and why.
In this episode of #BehindTheGlass, we hear from Nigel Barker, who has been a professional on both sides of the camera. He’s internationally recognized for his body of work and features on various ‘Next Top Model productions, speaks about his idea of borders. While the discussion lives in the grey area, there are often borders that photographers and retouchers set for themselves, not to be crossed. How far out that line may be varies, and Barker seems to draw the line at altering bone structure to any real degree.
He goes on to speak historically of the existence of people ‘retouching’ the way they look via the use of make-up. Actually, he essentially references anything that manipulates how one would naturally look, from the black eye make-up of the Egyptians, to the ‘lotus foot’ of the Chinese who wanted their feet to appear smaller. Speaking to modern times, he speaks about how much of what we do as photographers, we do to make people look a certain way, such as using light to shape a figure.
What it seems he is getting at is that the idea of manipulating the way someone looks is historically prevalent, and that to some degree we all do it, so to vilify what we do digitally now, would seem hypocritical. We all make choices and take actions to ‘shape’ how we look. Our hairstyles do that, our clothes and how we wear them, make-up, and the list would go on.
It stands to be said that he doesn’t dignify all retouching, especially pertaining to digital manipulation of bone structure, but references how creating a shape with light is fine. To be honest, I’m generally in his camp. I believe it must be understood that the answers to each case are not binary – it’s all subjective.
I think digital retouching, as a practice, is still something we are learning to use responsibly, and it will take time to get it as close to right as possible, and then it’ll change again as the times do. Generally, I see little wrong with altering bone structure and so forth of the image; there are scenarios where I think it’s fine, such as if it’s being used for commercial purposes. Advertising is about selling, and humans are drawn to what we perceive as better than we may be. (Also, if you’re still under the misapprehension that nothing quite changes appearance like Photoshop, I’d recommend taking a look at what women are doing everyday with make-up and how it alters the look of physical structure. It’s mind blowing, and often more intensive and altering than any retouching I do).
This is not a new notion at all, and you needn’t go back millennia to see this. If you’ve got time, Google some images of golden age actresses like Vivien Leigh or Betty Davis and notice how perfect their skin and structure often look, shaped with light, dodged and burned. Or even to drawn advertisements in the 60’s depicting families with fathers that had jawlines sharper than their wit.
The only real consideration I think needs to be taken here is the effect on youth.
For the most part, adults have the experience and sense to understand that images we see in the media aren’t a representation of what’s real, and don’t fully expect people to appear how they do in marketing materials – and we know that it’s almost all marketing material. Youth however, blessed with naïveté, are often conditioned grossly by media – herein lies the social responsibility. But that being what it is, there should be no expectation from anyone that media changes how they do things because fiscal responsibility to these businesses, large and small, generally trump a social one. Don’t think it should be that way? I wouldn’t waste much time crying about it, because that’s expecting the mountain to come to Muhammed.