In Defense of Photoshop

Model: Victoria Dagger; Photo: Max Johnson.  Image retouched and composited using Photoshop.

I know, you must think I’m very defensive this month, what with In Defense of Ready-to-Wear Corsets two weeks ago, and now this.  Thing is, this idea has been germinating for some time, this defense of Photoshop.  Poor Photoshop, you’re so villainized and misunderstood.  You’re just a tool, and yes, in the wrong hands, you do some absurd and terrible things.  But you also do beautiful things that only enhance our ability to appreciate an image.  Every now and then some Photoshop mishap will be unleashed upon the world and held up as the symbol of our social pressures, as the catalyst for eating disorders across the country, and the cry will go out to ban Photoshop from our media imagery.  But is it even possible?  Or necessary?

I think a lot of the outcry against Photoshop is based on a widespread confusion about how Photoshop is most often used, and the context and evolution of its usage.

Joel Aron’s proofs may look better than most of finished images that I see, but that doesn’t stop him from perfecting each photo with post-processing. Model: Victoria Dagger; art director: Morgan Marcani.

As a writer here for The Lingerie Addict, I probably don’t have to tell you that I do not in any way condone body snark.  A person’s body is nobody’s business but their own.  The years of having people make snippy remarks like, “Halloween was last month,” in response to my eclectic outfits are, realistically, at least somewhat responsible for the cool confidence for what some people refer to as my effortless style (to my bafflement).  Thing is, when a photograph is doctored, it’s not necessarily an implicit judgment of the model therein, or the populace that looks upon it.  Photos are retouched for a lot of reasons, and it’s important to remember that a photograph isn’t necessarily a portrait, especially if you’re seeing it in a magazine.

Before and after retouching example by Joel Aron. Well-executed retouching looks natural and draws the viewer to the intended focus of the image. Model: Lauren, for Dark Garden Unique Corsetry.

There’s this assumption that a camera is some sort of magical truth recorder, but that’s really not the case.  Camera lenses do not record information with the same perception that our eyes and brains do.  Let’s start with the mechanics: our eyes only focus on a small portion of what we see, and the rest becomes a soft haze.  Some of this can be replicated with “depth of field” in a camera, but more often a whole image is sharp, especially in product or catalog photography when detail is required to explain a product.  Just last week, the best head drawing professor I’ve worked with told his class that drawing from life is superior because the camera distorts an image – understandable, when we take a three-dimensional object and try to condense it into two, the presumed source of the old “the camera adds ten pounds” adage.  In particular, the camera will capture objects closest to it as being larger than life, often disproportionately so.  Meanwhile, our brains are looking at people through their own haze, one that is probably generally good-natured.  We don’t look at our friends and notice their pores, zits, stray hairs, mini-muffins from tight clothing, wrinkles, stretch marks, and minute scars in stark detail.  Our brain sees a living, breathing, moving impression of the person, through the filter of our emotions toward them and mood at the time.  Our brain naturally straightens things that are at an angle, improves symmetry, standardizes foreshortening and proportion, and so on.

A camera lens doesn’t record things as our eye sees them: notice how the model’s left hand is significantly larger than the right because it is closer to the camera. Photo by Joel Aron for Dark Garden Unique Corsetry.

In a photograph, with all those small details brought out crystal clear, the resulting image (so different from life) is a series of distractions from whatever the subject of the photograph is intended to be.  Even if the intended subject was a portrait, an unretouched image can be like hearing your voice on your answering machine for the first time.  “Is that what I really sound like?” you think.  “Is my voice that grating?”

Retouching example by Max Johnson. Which version of the image do you think is a better reflection of how you would observe this model’s skin in life?

Aside from focus, a camera also records color differently.  Unretouched images often have a slightly muddy look to them; Photoshop (or its equivalent) will almost always be necessary in any image to fine-tune contrast and color balance.  For that reason alone, we could never truly ban Photoshop, to say nothing of simple niceties like cropping an image.

Model: Victoria Dagger; Photo: Karolina Marek. Photoshop was clearly used in this image to adjust the color palette and contrast.

Some of our mistrust of Photoshop comes from a good old-fashioned fear of the Other.  The fashion industry as a whole, or its various facets, gets lumped into this giant, hateful, misogynistic, Devil-Wears-Prada mass when people go on these rants and tirades.  But ultimately, the fashion industry is made of individual people, and all the designers I’ve known are more interested in designing beautiful things than repressing the models who are to be their living clothes hangers.  We don’t run around like Mugatu from Zoolander, asking if our dressmaker pins got in the way of your ass.  By that same token, photographers are also real people, and artists.  As I mentioned before, most photography isn’t portraiture, and I believe a photographer has a right to exercise some artistic license.

Believe it or not, not everyone in the fashion industry is like Mugatu from Zoolander! A lot of us just want to practice our craft. We’re in it for the art, not the oppression.

At this point, it bears mentioning that while Photoshop has only existed since 1989, humans have been doctoring images for as long as we’ve been making them.  Retouching goes back about as long as we’ve had photography (remember that some of the most prominent pinup artists got their start as airbrushers), and before that, painters would use their discretion in capturing a subject in their best light.  “You’re the designer,” my figure drawing professors would say as I worked towards my MFA.  Sometimes, life taken literally just doesn’t translate well to the page.

Retouched image of famous tightlacer Polaire. Source with additional before & after images: http://www.contourcorsets.com/corset_writings.html.

I saw a TED talk not long ago, the speaker of which is an underwear model.  You can view the whole thing here: Cameron Russell: Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model.  What I found more telling, though, was this summary of the talk: Model Cameron Russell gives the real story behind six of her stunning photos.  The real story?  Hardly.  Looking at Ms. Russell speaking, which set of images do you think more closely resembles?  The editorial images, or snapshots from the same time period?  I do think the talk was interesting and she makes some very good points, but most of what the comparison between images showed me was: 1) Wow, point-and-shoot cameras in the hands of an amateur sure take bad photos, and 2) It’s really weird that we doll up young teens to look like they are in their 20s.
More relevant to my point is when Ms. Russell says that when we see an image, what we really see is a composite, a team’s hard work.  Is it more immoral to have professional stylists doing your hair, makeup, and wardrobe than to do it yourself?  Is it unethical to light an image to show a model to her best advantage?  I don’t think so, personally.  Anyway, Photoshop is only a small part of the equation of what crafts the photos we see in magazines.

Same model (Cameron Russell), same time period. The “real story” about (un)flattering lighting and poses. Speaking of misuse of Photoshop, what’s with the wonky aspect ratio..?

As a disclaimer, much of what I said applies primarily to advertising and editorial images.  When the subject is a celebrity, truly a subject and not simply a model, it gets more complicated.  Celebrities must exist in a cycle of exceptionalism for the same reason books aren’t written about the commonplace.  We are intrigued by their unique qualities, and they’re under pressure to remain extraordinary, to the point that their images are processed to the edge of recognition, “refined” to an editor’s ideal of unreal beauty.

With all of that said (I know, it was a lot), I do absolutely believe that Photoshop can be taken too far, used to create images that are entirely unrealistic and/or unhealthy looking.  Negligent retouchers drastically overcorrect minor blemishes, camera distortions, or nothing at all.  Things that bring me particular concern are the transformation of healthy women into anatomically impossible figures (of course), the sexualization of underage girls, and the whitewashing of women of color.

What do you find troubling about the way we use Photoshop?  Has this piece made you reconsider its place in our world?  How do you think we can enact social change through our media images, or educate people about the unreality of photos?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Marianne

Marianne

Marianne Faulkner is the designer of Pop Antique, a clothing and corsetry line specializing in sustainable materials and comfortable curves. She is based in San Francisco where she earned her MFA in fashion design at the Academy of Art University, and has been a columnist at The Lingerie Addict since 2011.

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20 Comments

  1. 22/05/13 at 6:51

    I have a love-hate relationship with photoshop. As a model, like yourself, I find myself having to face the camera often and then see images that come out after going through Lightroom/Photoshop. As you’ve mentioned with the image of Lauren, especially when it comes to fashion photography, the image is usually focused on the fashion aspect e.g the shape of a corset, the colours of an outfit. When it comes to artistic works (art nudes, classic portraits) other kinds of aspects might be highlighted through post-processing e.g various shadows, colours, shapes to project a certain subject, mood, story.
    Whenever I talk to a photographer and they ask me “what do you want to shoot?” with no real idea, subject, context, I always say that I am only the paint or the canvas, the photographer, the make-up artist, the stylist, the post-processor are the artists. At the end of the day, the pictures really are the pictures, whether they’re meant to be in a gallery, a book, a magazine, or even websites. They’re no different from paintings and drawings, except that maybe there might be a larger collaboration (then again, there have been paintings done with a large team such as Guinness World Record sized ones and then there are photos done by just one person, like Iberian Black Arts/Threnody in Velvet.).
    If there’s images that aren’t done well or are displeasing, I say, don’t blame Photoshop, blame the artist.

    • Laysa
      12/06/13 at 16:47

      Very well said! :D

  2. 22/05/13 at 10:49

    Trying very, very hard to scream “YES” in the middle of my office. This is exactly what I feel whenever someone complains about photoshop. Like photography it requires skill to use, and it takes time to retouch images. But yes, all of this is yes.

    • 23/05/13 at 14:03

      Thank you! I’m glad you found it relevant.

  3. 22/05/13 at 11:19

    This is a great post. I think ultimately what everyone should take away from this is Yes, things are photoshopped. If we realize that, we can stop living up to literally unreal ideals.

  4. Lily
    22/05/13 at 12:51

    It’s not photoshop itself that most people have a problem with- it’s reshaping women’s bodies to fit a cultural ideal and having that be unquestioned and acceptable. Erasing any fat, folds, wrinkles, pores as “flaws” tells women that these natural things are flaws. That is entirely different from retouching an image so that the colors are smoother or brighter, editing out a blemish, etc.

    • 23/05/13 at 14:15

      I agree with you, but that’s why I mentioned the mechanics (and psychology) of our eyes compared to a camera lens before hitting any of compositional stuff. How much of a person’s pores and wrinkles and folds do you notice as you go about the world and talk to people? Why do our psyche and society not look for flaws in life as intensely as we examine photographs for flaws (or, specifically, a lack thereof)? And clearly the ideal is being questioned, all the time, by us – in the words of Amanda Palmer, “We are the media.” As other commenters have said, retouchers operate at various skill levels – the good ones won’t remove all evidence of life in skin, and massively restructuring a woman’s body is indeed different from shifting an odd lump caused by a pose or garment (which our naked eyes wouldn’t have noticed on a live figure). What I tend to see happening is people attacking Photoshop, the medium, for the work done by a retoucher, a person, but perhaps you and I simply notice different things when those sorts of situations blow up. I think it’s also worth pointing out that the massive re-sculpting operations are a pretty dramatic minority of what people use Photoshop for, yet they are the main thing that gets discussed or noticed by the public.

      • Jon
        23/05/13 at 18:06

        There are significant problems with justifying the use of Photoshop based on what any individual perceives with their eyes when looking at others. The first problem, part of the reason we do not notice blemishes flaws etc is because people go to great lengths to mask them (concealer, botox etc). That I do not notice them many times is not because I am not looking but rather that individuals often go to great lengths to prevent me from noticing them. This reflects what another poster has already called attention to–blemishes, wrinkles etc are flaws and thus should be hidden. Photoshop is not the genesis of this practice. However the use of Photoshop to remove them from images reproduces that thinking. Put another way Photoshop is being used within a logic that says particular elements of the body should be hidden or at least made not noticeable to others. And it is the logic that informs the use of Photoshop that is relevant and not the amount of Photoshopping that is done (i.e. retouching v. alteration).

        The second issue concerns proximity–most people do not talk to others in a close up relationship. Much of advertising that focuses on the face comes in the form of facial close ups and it is not a stretch to say that if people spoke with their faces close up (as in a facial close up) they would indeed see the pores, wrinkles, moles, blemishes etc. Again we don’t notice them because when speaking we do not focus on the face. However with camera close ups we are focused on the face (or other body parts). Blemishes etc become noticeable because of the proximity generated by the close up shot. “Softening” the image and removing blemishes, wrinkles etc does not make the camera more like our eye. Rather it fails to acknowledge the impact of proximity on what we pay attention to. Put your face in close proximity to mine, and yes I am more likely to notice your “flaws.”

        Which brings me to the third. Retouching to show us what our eye sees merely reinforces the disciplining of the body in ways that reflect dominant conceptions of “legitimate bodies.” Yes the camera produces distortions but again what is relevant is the logic that animates the correction of those distortions that is relevant. Sure one can say we correct for the camera adding 10 pounds so we see the “truth” of this person’s body—and yet there is anxiety about the body—we need to correct for those 10 pounds because the person does not have those 10 pounds–and they shouldn’t. So what if the camera adds 10 pounds, we can all accept and realize that distortion and move on. And yet we don’t and presenting the “truth” of X model’s body ensures that we know that they know that shouldn’t look 10 pounds heavier in their everyday lives.

        Two final points:

        1) If people did not pay attention to the bodily flaws of others, why all the body snark? If they did not, there would be no need for the exceptional cultural political work that this blog is doing. In fact people do pay attention to these things, advertising tell us we should be paying attention to these things (concealer, wear a Hip T to hide your muffin top, botox to remove wrinkles etc).

        2) Most complaints about Photoshop are not concerned with retouching or correcting for minor distortions. All the attempts to regulate the use of Photopshop emphasize significant use of Photoshop to alter images. While I do not discount that individuals here have encountered general dismissals of Photoshop, much of the discourse concerned with the cultural impact of Photoshop addresses significant manipulation of images, manipulations that are consistent with logics that are not about showing the “truth of bodies” but rather presenting images of ideal bodies that should be attained particularly through the consumption of particular products.

  5. Lauren
    22/05/13 at 13:19

    I agree, to an extent. While we realize that things are Photoshopped, I don’t understand WHY we Photoshop someone’s body. Specifically, to make them skinnier or curvier. Like in the one picture, why was it necessary to remove arm flab from the woman in the corset? In my mind, that specific edit adds NOTHING to the picture.

    • 23/05/13 at 14:28

      Responding to your specific question, I think that particular change contributed two things.
      1) I have worked with that model (also named Lauren), who was actually a shopgirl for Dark Garden Corsetry at the time. I can tell you right now that her arms don’t usually look like that – the particular piece of “flab” on her upper arm was caused by some combination of pose/sinking antique couch/rigid corset/angle of photo. Even when I was 105 pounds and a size 0, I learned that having my arm flat against my side would make it look disproportionately wide in photographs. So what we gain by changing the literal truth captured by the photograph is a better representation of the “truthiness” of Lauren’s figure.
      2) Silhouette. From an artistic perspective, moving that piece of flesh in made for a more powerful silhouette shape of the entire form. The line from shoulder to corset is much simpler and more rhythmic, drawing your eye to a focal point. The width of the arm is much more proportionate compared to her overall width as well as the width of the other arm.
      To me, looking between the two images, it almost looks like the “before” shot was altered with that shape actually pushed out of place, though I know the opposite to be true. As my graphic designer girlfriend is wont to say, “Good design is invisible.” If you hadn’t seen the before shot, would you have thought that the model’s body had been altered?

  6. Tiffany
    22/05/13 at 18:53

    I’m really glad you addressed this because so often fashion photographers and retouchers get scapegoated or villainized. I’m a fashion photographer and retouching is part of the whole thing and it’s necessary for the final image to look polished and professional. I feel like it’s sometimes hard for people to understand and I’ve had people tell me that what I’m doing is wrong and I’m contributing to eating disorders, etc. I think it’s important to understand that retouchers aren’t taking an average or bad photo and then just changing it in photoshop to make it look totally different. A carefully selected creative team is contributing to the final image through styling, makeup, hair, lighting, model casting and direction. Only after the shoot do retouchers come in to enhance what is already there and makes sure every element of the photo looks its best.

    • 23/05/13 at 14:55

      I totally sympathize with the villainization of your profession. As a fashion designer, I always feel myself being a little defensive because aside from the body image issues (in my craft, evidenced by typical sample sizes and runway models), there’s also this guilt trip about materialism. Neither of which are really a reflection of my personal business model or ideals. I love your last two sentences – a retoucher’s job isn’t to change, merely enhance. What’s wrong with making all the elements look their best? An unretouched image is essentially a draft, not a finished piece, and it doesn’t do justice to the hard work of a creative team. All things in moderation.

  7. 22/05/13 at 21:49

    This is an excellent article: very important for the creative community. Photoshop is one of the best programs available for designers and artists to take their work to another level. Of course, it can be used for less than admirable causes, but so can any innovation. The Internet has expanded our vision and blurred borders, but it also is the source of much misinformation. Email ha revolutionized communication but it has also become a burden. Social Media has brought people together and simultaneously compromised privacy. One must extract the positive in any new program. Photoshop is a great tool. Its the responsibility of the user to do the right thing.

    • 23/05/13 at 14:49

      My girlfriend (a graphic designer) loves your comment; she thinks your analogies are spot on and your overall point is perfect. I agree; your “user vs the tool” statement is a very concise summation of my ultimate conclusion. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Laura
    23/05/13 at 14:10

    Lauren, that’s exactly what I was thinking. I have no problem with using tools (digital or otherwise) to enhance lighting, coloring, mood, etc.; I have a real problem with editing body parts.

    • 23/05/13 at 14:41

      Hi Laura, you can read my response to Lauren above, and my answer to Lily covers it a bit as well. Out of curiosity, since you say “digital or otherwise” with regard to adjusting lighting and the like, how do you feel about the use of shapewear, makeup, hair dye, and high heels to alter body parts?
      Mostly, though, I still maintain that the majority of Photoshop use to manipulate body parts is basically correcting for the way a camera captures a form compared to the way our eyes and brain see and record it. It’s just that nobody talks about that on Photoshop Fail posts or Jezebel articles. We do have a real problem with overcorrecting (or “correcting” nothing at all), though, and you’re right to take issue with it. I guess I just wouldn’t, personally, being in “The Industry” as both a model and a designer, make any kind of blanket statement about digital body manipulations.

  9. 0000
    04/06/13 at 19:11

    I really don’t like retouched photos. As a person who appreciates all aspects of a human body, I’m morally opposed to any Photoshop alterations to the person at all (other than lighting). I agree from drawing class that pictures are unreliable, but they aren’t as if you’re looking through a fish bowl, they are pretty realistic. I would disagree, the retouched pictures are not how I see a person or a scene, real lighting is real lighting and I DO see their blemishes and imperfections and as the french say ALORS! So what! So what a person has blemishes, pores, wrinkles, dark spots, crow’s feet? So what they have skin folds, arm flab, nipples, body hair, their bones show through their skin or their thighs look big? It’s a part of their body and who they are. That “imperfection” distinguishes a real person from a mannequin, and the fashion industry often forgets the point of a real person being the model, having too much focus on an artificial ideal or an aesthetic and removing the human element out of it, which unfortunately only serves in compromising their vision and alienating their customers. That’s why I love nude paintings, statues, etc., they show the pubic hair, the skin folds, the flabby thighs and don’t shy away at all from imperfection, this elevates the figure, the scene, and shows them as a full human being with character, not a mannequin.

    • 05/06/13 at 13:06

      I certainly don’t mean to imply that our eyes are incapable of registering minute details such as pores and crow’s feet, but a photograph makes our us see all of them at the same time, in a way that our living eyes literally can’t. A good retoucher, as I mentioned, won’t eradicate all of those elements, but streamline the focal points of an image.

      I also find it very telling that you use “nude paintings, statues, etc.” as a point of comparison. I earn probably about half my living art modeling at a very rigorous, well regarded art school, and only beginning students try to render each detail exactly as they (think they) see it. The instructors push and pull at the shapes, finessing proportion, simplifying form and detail to avoid overwhelming the eye with too many focal points. Some poses taken in classical paintings are actually literally anatomically impossible to assume, let alone hold for the length of a painting. For example, Sargent’s “Egyptian Girl” probably had extra vertebrae added to her spine for that deceptively simple pose! In short, “fine art” was the original Photoshop.

      Again, I am not advocating for retouching that advocates all signs of humanity, merely pointing out that blanket statements about Photoshop being bad are based on a lot of faulty assumptions. The way people see Photoshop compared to the way it’s more often used is like comparing alcoholism to cocktail hour. All things in moderation.

  10. AlexaFaie
    05/07/13 at 16:36

    My one experience of having my images pass via photoshop was negative for only one reason.
    I have some moles on my face which I actually quite like. Its kinda weird but my Mum and I share moles of about the same size in about the same place over a lot of our bodies. It interests me that genetics could perhaps stretch that far as to pre-code placement of higher levels of skin pigmentation (it could just be random chance too of course).
    Anyway, to me they are lovely. To the photographer they were some kind of blemish which should be removed. I was glad he removed the little pimply spots I had and made it so my pores weren’t so obvious; but he took my beauty spots away! lol

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