Retouching. The root of all evil. The scourge of women. Or. The digital plastic surgeon. The pusher of pixels. Or most likely, somewhere in between.
First off: retouching is a general term that can be used to refer to a number of techniques. The term can mean: colour management, when you alter the tone and colour in an image to dramatic, creative or honest effect, and make all the images look like they’re in a collection; skin perfecting - making it blemish free, small pores, even out skin colouring and texture, remove wrinkles; editing content, for example removing a hair grip is sticking out of the model’s hair, or removing a plastic bottle left in the background; and altering the model's figure, such as slimming their waist, or making breasts bigger.
The majority of ‘retouching’ isn’t controversial in advertising or editorial photography. It’s only when a subject's skin is retouched to extreme lengths (like in a case with Madonna), or the body shape has been altered in a noticeable way (like this case with Zendaya), that it becomes problematic. One of the more disturbing aspects of retouching gone awry is lightening the skin of celebrities such Beyonce, and Gabourey Sidibe. Not only is it a misrepresentation of them, but it’s a disturbing and damaging encouragement of the idea that paler skin is more perfect or beautiful than darker skin.
Not much of my work has been ‘retouched’ in this sense. I’ve never shrunk a model’s waist or thighs, dramatically de-aged a subject, or attempted to lighten a model’s skin. I don’t do full-on billboard advert level retouching, and I’ve infrequently had my work retouched by a professional retoucher. And when I have, it’s usually to colour manage and even out skin tone. I have read comments on my work saying the skin has been retouched or the body has been altered. Ironically, when I get comments on my work saying I’ve retouched something, it’s usually on the images that have had very little, if any at all.
I shot this image above of Immodesty Blaize for corsetière Sparklewren back in 2012, when I could just about point a light in the right direction. Immodesty Blaize looks spectacular both in person and in print, but on multiple occasions people have said her waist has been altered in this image. You can see from the side by side comparison of the RAW (the original, unedited file) next to the retouched file, her waist has not been altered. Her waist to hip ratio is a combination of the corset shape, lighting, the position she’s standing in/where I’m shooting her from, and her natural shape. Some of the comments I’ve seen have varied from a bit rude to utterly offensive. But the only retouching, on this image (by the brilliant Catherine Day) is some colour and skin correcting, and removing fabric wrinkles and distracting feathers (as well as covering up some mistakes I made as an inexperienced photographer).
Earlier this year, YouTuber Tanya Burr was accused of retouching images on her social media. This accusation is unfathomable, as she shoots videos for her YouTube channel, and posts videos to Instagram and Snapchat everyday. People know exactly what she looks like, she isn’t about to start retouching her images. When we shot images for her most recent Tanya Burr Cosmetics campaign, she decided to release the images without retouching - and I really mean no retouching of any kind. And yet, she still gets accused of retouching her images. People see retouching where it hasn’t occurred, and yet don’t see the retouching in the images they see every day. The images in our media are so perfected we no longer recognise what ‘normal’ is. We are exposed to very limited examples of what women actually look like.
Because I see every model and subject who’s stood in front of me to have their picture taken in fine, pixel detail, I know what people look like. I can tell if someone has been religious in wearing sunscreen, or if they’ve been out partying the night before. I’m also aware of the wide range of body shapes the human form comes in. I see the hours that go into making the model look ‘perfect' and the hours in post production. If you work in the industry, you know how much work that goes into making a person look perfect. So we have some perspective, but I think we forget that the average person looking at these images do not.
If you ask someone if they think a big billboard of a model advertising make up is retouched, without hesitation they would say yes. But constantly being surrounded by hyper-perfected images, we seem to lose our objectivity. We are used to seeing images of perfected people, and when we see more images of people than real people, we start to think those images are what is normal.
I think being constantly surrounded with images of perfected people is incredibly damaging and isolating to the viewer. We seek validation from the people around us, whether real or in an image or on a film. And when we persistently don’t recognise ourselves in the people around us, it becomes quite isolating. We begin to feel weird or ugly because we seem to be alone, or in the minority, with our hair, acne, skin colour, wrinkles, skin pigmentation, wonky nose, stretch marks, cellulite, or a body shape unlike those of the people (real or otherwise) we see. And so the images of people we are surrounded by appear to be the ideal, the optimum goals of what we should be working towards. But these people we are surrounded by don’t really exist. Or rather, they do exist but they don’t look like that. Heavily retouched images project a completely unattainable ideal of what women should look like, and in turn people are now expecting these high standards not just of high profile women having their photographs professionally taken, but of normal women, every day. Go on any photo a female celebrity has put of themselves on Instagram, or any gossip article and you will see comments criticising their appearance. It is relentless. And where do people develop such high expectations of what women should look like every second of every day? Being surrounded by perfected images of women, creates and perpetuates that expectation of all women.
I am not anti retouching completely, and I’m certainly not railing against retouchers. These aspects of retouching are a small part of their job, and these changes are on request of their clients. When it comes to retouching, it’s mostly dictated by the client. So that’s the magazine, the advertising agency, or the company whose products are being advertised. I can completely understand why companies want their products presented and worn in the best way possible. They want to sell the lifestyle and expectation to make their product more enticing. A model may have a break out the day of a shoot. I can’t blame her for wanting to have her skin retouched. A magazine editor wants an incredible set of images of their cover star to sell copies. I think all of these points of view are understandable, and I have no qualms with them. We want to present products and people in the best light. But when heavily retouched and perfected images are all we see on our TVs, in print, on the internet, on our phones, it’s going to effect our perspective of what a woman looks like.
By the time an image gets to the point of being retouched, a number of efforts have been made to perfect the model: firstly, the model themselves could be genetically lucky when it comes to appearance and body type, and take good care of themselves, both inside and out; on a shoot they’re often made up by great make up artists with great make up; and then dressed in a way to flatter and accentuate their figure; they are then lit in a way that can minimise ‘flaws’; and finally shot from a flattering angle. So by the time the image lands on a computer, there’s already a lot of work gone into creating a perfected figure. Retouching can be a fantastic tool to colour correct an image, even out irregular skin tone caused by light and surrounding colour, correct mistakes made by the photographer, make up artist or hair stylist, and perfect the fit of a piece of clothing. And in advertising, retouching any obvious flaws that would distract from the products is a really useful tool to have.
The rise of Instagram and similar photo sharing apps has seen an increase in this perfectionism. You can go on and see hundreds of thousands of photos of perfect looking people. But, thankfully, there’s a growing rebellion against this perfectionism. There’s a growing desire from consumers for more authentic images. And within the industry, there’s a growing desire to present women as they are. Editors are commissioning more shoots without retouching, with Seventeen Magazine now refusing to alter the body shape of their models. And we are seeing the women in front of the camera rejecting the body shape forced on them in post-production. Kate Winslet has a no retouching clause in her contract with L’Oreal. Lena Dunham no longer allows images of her to be retouched. Celebrities are calling out magazines that have retouched them beyond recognition, like Zendaya and Kerry Washington. There's signs of companies embracing low to no-retouching images, with Dove, American Eagle, Aerie, and the aforementioned Tanya Burr Cosmetics choosing to release advertising free of Photoshop.
Going forward, I hope the rejection of morphing a woman's body into the 'ideal' shape and colour continues. I don't think we'll ever be Photoshop free, nor do I think that's necessary, but I hope everyone in the industry can embrace a more realistic depiction of women, and that consumers continue to demand it.