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Wet and dreamy and impossibly beautiful
April 3, 2009 9:02 AM   Subscribe

"What you're looking for as a retoucher is a broom, something that covers your tracks, some way of obscuring where you've been. The first thing [most] people take out is bloodshot eyes. That's the last thing I take out—the last thing I'd, like, just wipe, because that just makes it look retouched." -- from Jesse Epstein's video op-ed for the NY Times, based on her film Wet Dreams and False Images ("I know that's not airbrushed. I could put a million dollars that's not airbrushed."), one of three related short documentaries on physical perfection. "Each head has to be identical to the other head, so we don't want anybody putting sandpaper to the head." -- from 34 x 25 x 36. Via the latest installment of Shakesville's Impossibly Beautiful series. (Previous posts on retouching.)
posted by maudlin (51 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think it's funny when women get photoshopped to be fatter, more curvaceous.
posted by lizbunny at 9:13 AM on April 3, 2009


The French don't airbrush. Much.
posted by Mblue at 9:26 AM on April 3, 2009


When I was 13 I remember reading my sister's YM magazines and laughing. When I was 17 I remember reading Reviving Ophelia and it stopped being funny.
posted by Smarson at 9:58 AM on April 3, 2009


I occasionally do some very low-level retouching. Knowing, as I do, that every image before us has been retouched, I often find myself in awe of some of the work being done, especially the stuff that doesn't rely on heavily saturated colors to hide the edits and blends.

But, yeah, it really IS sad that we can't sell anything without shoving a glossy, perfected peopleoid in the consumer's face.

That said, if you really wanted to see a master at work, you should have been around in the days when artists worked directly on the prints and even the transparencies. Before the days of "undo". Amazing stuff.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:59 AM on April 3, 2009


...it really IS sad that we can'tusually don't sell anything without shoving a glossy, perfected peopleoid in the consumer's face.

If you stay away from TV/magazines for a few months, you can get your taste back. You start to notice differences between genuine products/media sources/stores/etc and "glossy, perfected" ones.
posted by DU at 10:12 AM on April 3, 2009


My wife produces data for archived photographic collections. One of her recent collections was images of prominent people from a newspaper publishing in the early 1900s. Even though they were 90 years old, almost every single one of these photos were retouched, some dramatically. Not enough neckline? Pencil it in. No pupils? Pencil it in. Beard not dark enough? Pencil. No chin? Pencil. I was very surprised at the degree to which the paper drew in or took out (with a white-out like substance) features of men and women to make them visually stand out more or look better on the printed page.
posted by mrmojoflying at 10:22 AM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Damn it, now I'm looking for something I saw ages ago, perhaps linked here, about how people's expectations of realistic retouching in film and/or pictures have changed over the decades. I think I may have seen some of the surprisingly crude images you mention, mrmojoflying.

The editing of the Kallikaks' pictures, whether as common practice or as an attempt to deceive, might be a good quick example of this. Early Soviet retouching is also notorious, although it's all about disappearing the unwanted and building up crowds rather than disappearing unwanted pounds and building up boobs.
posted by maudlin at 10:47 AM on April 3, 2009


This one is mind-blowing. The person on the cover does not even remotely resemble the person in real life. Actually, visit the link and see if you have any idea who it might be before scrolling to the bottom and finding out.

Seriously, why not just use a damn illustration? It would be so much more honest.
posted by Ndwright at 10:56 AM on April 3, 2009


mrmojoflying: " Even though they were 90 years old, almost every single one of these photos were retouched, some dramatically."

Yeah, it kind of undercuts the ZOMG factor that image manipulation to conform with societal beauty standards has been going on for as long as humans have been creating images.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:03 AM on April 3, 2009


In the 70s I was picked up hitchhiking by a guy who said he was a retoucher for the Pittsburgh Press. He said the job mostly entailed "making girl's skirts longer and guy's hair shorter" in the background of news photos.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:05 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


As another example, here's Lindsay Lohan selling tanning product. Here's a skin comparison of the image vs. a photograph of her real skin.

But I will say this ... most people (including me) don't always know what a healthy weight looks like. That skinny model on the magazine cover has certainly been shopped. But guess what? It turns out that healthy is still skinnier than you think it is.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:10 AM on April 3, 2009


detouch.org has a java applet that shows before-and-after on a bunch of retouched photos, in interesting different ways.
posted by ook at 11:17 AM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


The one that has always struck me from Shakesville's Impossibly Beautiful series is this one of Jessica Alba. I'm not sure why--I think it's close enough to all the pictures that I used to stare at in Seventeen and YM (while, of course, despairing of ever having a waist like that), plus the fact that her body looks really normal in the before shot, with more of a straight up-and-down torso, which is the thing I always hated about my body as a teenager. I was surprised to find myself strangely relieved when looking at it--I thought that I was long past those teenage insecurities, but evidently they die hard.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:45 AM on April 3, 2009


Commentators never seem to go deep enough on these stories. They say "oh, magazines make people want beautiful bodies" etc. But why do people like beautiful bodies? Instincts. Why are people insecure about their bodies? Because we evolved in such a competitive environment. All of our insecurities are inherent in us. The magazines play up to ideals of beauty which are present in us, and reflect the value we place on it. It is not from without to within, the obsession is not created externally to us and put into us. We create it, prompted by what is already inside us: the evolutionary drive for success and achievement and high status which has been bred into us over millions of years. Talking about all of these issues simply in terms of society, media, young people's body image, peer pressure, expectations, self-esteem, etc, is skirting the issue in the most superficial way. Why don't the studies ever ask why self-esteem should happen to be related to the estimation of one's beauty, and why people value beauty in the first place, rather than condemning purveyors of images of beauty? Wanting to be beautiful is a result of desiring reproductive and social success: why not then question whether it is right to want to be reproductively successful at all? Why not question whether it is right to want to have high status? Isn't it the sex drive itself, and the corollary, the insatiable desire for status, which is blameworthy and reprehensible, this thing which is so fundamental to our natures and influences our behaviour almost universally and exclusively, pervasively, insidiously, subtly and unsubtly, causing us to be so competitive, and to determine a value for ourselves relating entirely to how we measure up against others? Shouldn't we just try to change our values so that our self-esteem is based on something philosophical rather than anything social or physical? Shouldn't we just renounce our animal drives and instincts? If studies in the psychological and psychosocial realm never consider our evolved drives, our biological basis, our animal nature, they are never going to arrive at any meaningful conclusions, they are just going to chase their tail endlessly and skate over the surface of the issues, mistaking shadows for substance. It is like the debate around violence in the media. The violence is in the media because of our violent natures, which are again a result of our animal natures. The media is produced by us, in order to fascinate us, therefore everything in it is a reflection of us and comes first from us. Therefore the only thing to blame is ourselves: we cannot blame magazines, because they are produced by us to address desires in us. We must blame the actual desires.
posted by haines at 12:01 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


The title "Wet Dreams and False Images" was okay, until I saw the clip of the man actually saying it, that his buddy had "had a lot of wet dreams to false images". And shoot, that is such a rad turn of phrase. Good choice to use it as the title of the film.
posted by redsparkler at 12:24 PM on April 3, 2009


I love "Photoshop Disasters". It doesn't focus on beauty issues, necessarily, but the myriad of screw-ups makes it clear that everything we see is manipulated by mortal people who lose track of reality in pursuit of product.
posted by redsparkler at 12:28 PM on April 3, 2009


yea, I find it kinda depressing how much alteration goes into the images we see everyday. and it's only getting more pervasive - over the last few years, it's become a lot more common to digitally fix actress' "flaws" in film as well. I put flaws in quotes there, because they're not flaws, they're normal things that happen when a person moves - like, you turn your head, a wrinkle shows on your neck, you smile, a crease appears at the corner of your mouth. Looks too human! remove it!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:35 PM on April 3, 2009


haines, I think the point is that, in person, Lindsay Lohan or Jessica Alba are probably perfectly sexy as they stand (or recline, if you're really a smooth talker). So the interesting question is why, when presented with "unretouched" people in a photo, are we so critical as consumers?

Just as an example, I've watched women thumb through "women's magazines" and talk about how ugly certain people in the photos or ads were...I mean, these were all beautiful people in the photos, whether to your taste or not. These were serious conversations. What prompts that level of criticism?
posted by maxwelton at 12:35 PM on April 3, 2009


What prompts that level of criticism?

Fear of mortality.
posted by tkchrist at 12:42 PM on April 3, 2009


I do quite a bit of retouching on my own work and I freelance for other photographers and work on their images. Perfection in photographs is now just a matter of how much time & effort you are willing to put into it. It was harder back in the "old days", but it was still going on. Some of the guys I know who are far above and beyond the things I'm capable of are just as skilled as the people who used to actually work on physical prints, the tools have just changed and gotten more powerful. Really we just all want to make great images, and if perfection is just a few hours of retouching away why not?

I find it kind of funny though that the line for "manipulation" is drawn at Photoshop for a lot of people. As if the days of pre-production, styling, casting, makeup, careful lighting, framing, the team of people running around doing their best to hide every flaw and make the image great isn't, but the moment you brighten someone's eyes or whatever that makes it false.

Photographs have never been real or contained any kind of inherent truth, with or without Photoshop.
posted by bradbane at 12:45 PM on April 3, 2009 [9 favorites]


why, when presented with "unretouched" people in a photo, are we so critical as consumers?

It is not as "consumers" that we are critical, I think, it is as animals. The attributes which are exaggerated in the pictures are those which suggest healthiness and reproductive viability, which is why the exaggeration goes so far - it is attempting to match the degree to which evolution has conditioned us to seek out fixed ideals. As for calling people ugly, that's just competitiveness as well, I guess.
posted by haines at 1:20 PM on April 3, 2009


> As if the days of pre-production, styling, casting, makeup, careful lighting, framing, the team of people running around doing their best to hide every flaw and make the image great isn't, but the moment you brighten someone's eyes or whatever that makes it false.

I actually spend a good deal of my time supporting a team of retouchers who do all the heavy lifting on a major clothing retailers catalog and images. The majority of the work they are doing is usually focused on color accuracy, matching the printed materials to the shipping product ("it isn't the color I thought it would be" is the primary reason for product returns). However, even talking to the people who are making the decisions, it sounds like when they do ask to make the "skin more pleasant" the reasoning is always "well, everyone else is doing it, and we can't look bad by comparison."

I've scoping out photoshop disasters to see if they ever mess up, but it appears they are such big sticklers on color accuracy, phantom limbs and bad crops get caught way up in the pipeline. Also, since we are paid by work, a clone is more likely to be done right, than if we were an in house retoucher working for them instead.

That of course is my justification to not feeling entirely horrible about the fact that my job is still, in a some ways, helping perpetuate horrible body image issues and consumer consumption.
posted by mrzarquon at 1:37 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


We're being softened up for a Cylon skinjob-esque takeover. They're making plastic skin seem normal and acceptable to us...
posted by Coobeastie at 2:00 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why don't the studies ever ask why self-esteem should happen to be related to the estimation of one's beauty, and why people value beauty in the first place, rather than condemning purveyors of images of beauty?

haines, "competitive urges" is not enough of an answer; what is it that we're competing for, exactly, and why? I think you could make a pretty good case that advertising hypes not our urge to compete, but our fears of being excluded--of being unacceptable, scorned, alone, and mocked. Fears that we have always had, but that advertising excels in capitalizing on. You buy pimple cream not out of health concerns, but because you don't want to be worse-looking than all your teen friends, and get mocked for it. Of course pimple cream doesn't really do anything to help your zits, but advertisers skirt that by never making too-specific claims. And succeeding at dating is largely the same; not just because you want to mate, but because if you're not dating, you're a loser. (to keep this in teen terms).

Likewise, images of beauty used in advertising have always been exaggerated, because otherwise women would feel less fear of not measuring up. Before photos, there were ridiculous engraved illustrations of women with tiny waists and perfect faces, selling corsets and hats and lead-laced face creams.
posted by emjaybee at 2:49 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


But why do people like beautiful bodies? Instincts

So you're saying that people in Mauritiania have "instincts" to think that young women should be force-fed to be beautiful, whereas people in the US and Europe have "instincts" to think that young women should starve to be beautiful at the very same time?

Or that the "instincts" of the US changed in 130 years, so that Lillian Russell (5'4", 200 pounds) was displaced as the vision of perfect feminine beauty by Jessica Alba (5'6", 120 pounds)? Evolution doesn't work that fast in complex organisms like humans.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:06 PM on April 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


what Sidhedevil said!
posted by liza at 8:23 PM on April 3, 2009


I remember seeing this post and feeling really sorry for Faith Hill. She must have felt very depressed after seeing all the work they did to her picture. She doesn't seem to complain about it.

I'm just glad I'm not the retouched famous person or model and no one expects me to live up to those standards. Otherwise, I think the retouching is very interesting and it doesn't bother me. Obviously nobody normal expects a person to look like a cartoon.
posted by anniecat at 8:33 PM on April 3, 2009



"Look, she looks way too heavy, I mean, has way too, like, powerful, like she looks way too athletic, you know?"

Insanity. Marketing. Wtf? Wow.
posted by quietalittlewild at 3:35 AM on April 4, 2009


So you're saying that people in Mauritiania have "instincts" to think that young women should be force-fed to be beautiful, whereas people in the US and Europe have "instincts" to think that young women should starve to be beautiful at the very same time?

Or that the "instincts" of the US changed in 130 years, so that Lillian Russell (5'4", 200 pounds) was displaced as the vision of perfect feminine beauty by Jessica Alba (5'6", 120 pounds)?


The instinct is to obtain what is most important reproductively or socially. The other desires surely arise out of this. Food is important, and so is physical health, so both of these aspects would influence what is considered beautiful. Maybe 130 years ago food was in short supply, so being well-fed was fixated on more. Now, of course, food isn't in short supply, in fact quite the opposite. What changes is the signifiers of status, and ideas of beauty. The desire for status, and the desire for beauty, which are the things which cause the trouble, the underlying reasons why people prize these things, do not change. To reiterate, although ideas of beauty change, and social ideals, and accoutrements of high status may change, the desire to have these things, which as I have said I believe to be the cause of the insecurity and anguish, does not change. The desire is to have what is valued by others. If what is valued is one thing, that is what the instinct causes you to pursue, no?

what is it that we're competing for, exactly, and why? I think you could make a pretty good case that advertising hypes not our urge to compete, but our fears of being excluded--of being unacceptable, scorned, alone, and mocked

What is being competed for is status, because status pretty much dictates the availability of opportunities for reproduction in social animals. Our fears of being excluded are in us because of the fact that evolutionarily, resources and reproductive opportunities were and are limited, and fought-over, and being excluded from the group drastically reduces the chances of us getting what we (are programmed to) want. Advertising of course uses these fears and desires, because they are present in everyone. If they weren't already present in everyone, I don't think advertising or media would be enough to put them in everyone. Advertising and media only work because of these built-in desires. It is the desires which influence us, not the media which triggers those desires, surely.
posted by haines at 4:34 AM on April 4, 2009


Can I just add that I do think the saturation of the media with images of impossibly beautiful women and men is very irresponsible and unfair on young women particularly in that it creates false ideals, and I do think retouching should be regulated and that personally I would be very happy if it was completely banned. But I don't think particularly the absence of any such images would do everything to cure the self-esteem issues of young people. I think that self-esteem issues can be triggered by other things, simply by seeing someone in person who is beautiful or successful, for example. I don't think we can lay the blame for people with issues related to their estimation of themselves solely on the media, although the media certainly make things worse. But I think that in the absence of the media there would still be competition among women to be the most beautiful, and to have the highest status, and similarly among men, so we cannot just point the finger at the media and say they are the sole instigator and cause of the issues, because as I said that is not getting to the root of the problem, in a way it is just a reflection of the real issue, which is the competitive nature of our society, and the way we measure ourselves up against others, and want to be better or as good as others, and feel bad if we aren't. Wanting to be better than others is programmed into us, and is surely the root of the problem. We should educate children not to want anything for themselves, not to have ambition to be personally successful or seek personal glory, these are destructive, foolhardy aims, put in us by a process which puts the persistence of our genes ahead of individual mental wellbeing.
posted by haines at 4:56 AM on April 4, 2009


If you're looking to do retouching, don't do it like this (2nd picture down.)

It's also not just people, EVERYTHING is retouched to make it look better. In a previous gig as a retoucher at a medium-sized regional ad agency, I frequently spent 10-20 hours retouching product shots to look better. And yes, I did some retouching on people too. The direction was always 1. Make her thinner 2. Make her boobs bigger.
posted by Mcable at 7:16 AM on April 4, 2009


what Sidhedevil said!

What is being competed for is status, because status pretty much dictates the availability of opportunities for reproduction in social animals.


haines is very close to making an argument for why capitalism is natural. My freshman comp. students nod their heads in agreement.
posted by cnjnctvsynth at 7:46 AM on April 4, 2009


Capitalism has been here since the first proto-human had a favorite stick for digging grubs out of an anthill, and traded those grubs for nuts. Grubs are wealth, and the stick is the means for producing it. So, yes, capitalism is natural. If you find that objectionable, you may be confusing "natural" with "automatically good."

Ugly reality has no need to conform to ideology, or fairness, or anything else.

Certain standards of beauty are more or less constant across human cultures: nice skin, good teeth, symmetrical features. Weight? Not necessarily. Mind you, if Lillian Russell is 200 lb in those pictures, I would like to see her lead leg. Note, however, her waist. That hip-to-waist ratio thing seems to be one of those constants. Why, yes, certain ratios do seem to be correlated with health and fertility. No shocker that evolution would push you to pick a healthy, fertile mate. Of course, she's probably got a corset on — more deception!

Babies, just as soon as they can focus their eyes, will stare longer at the faces of more attractive people. It isn't as if a crack team of Cosmo-clutching ninjas slip into their rooms at night and say, "Okay, Baby Cindy, this is an 'attractive' person. This is an 'ugly' person. Know the difference! You must destroy the ugly and worship the beautiful."

Once you get into the social animals, pack status becomes highly important to the availability of mating opportunities.

Lions? Status-driven.
Hyaenas? Status-driven.
Every primate with a brain larger than that of a walnut? Status-driven.

The only difference with humans is that we are the first species to be able to imagine the perfect mate, put down that image on a piece of paper or a compressed file, and then send that image around the world. That's all. That the images be tweaked away from true is just an extension of our ability to make our thoughts manifest in a way no other species can.

Is it particularly nice or healthy or kind that we do these things? No, not really. It is, however, perfectly natural. Nature is often indifferent, and occasionally cruel. Sucks, doesn't it?

Recognizing that, and then realizing that human beings do not arrive tabula rasa, thereby implying that all instincts, preferences, and fixations are somehow mere cultural baggage created by a marketing committee or a room full of cigar-puffing old white guys, goes a long way towards explaining things.
posted by adipocere at 8:35 AM on April 4, 2009


I do think retouching should be regulated and that personally I would be very happy if it was completely banned.

Now that's just plain ridiculous.

Everything about a photo shoot is artifice. A person's appearance can be vastly altered by a different camera angle, or lighting, or costuming, or lens choice: a bit of padding here, a bit of duct tape just out of frame over there... Photoshop isn't required to make a photograph completely artificial and misleading, it's just faster and cheaper than the traditional techniques.

Even for unstaged journalistic photography, the editing involved in picking and choosing what to shoot, and what to crop out of the frame, is enough to completely alter the reality of what's being photographed. Send two decent photographers into the same war zone and I guarantee they can each make it look like a different side won the battle.

One needs to be able to trust that the journalists in question have enough ethics not to misrepresent a story, but that's independent of whether they use photoshop or not.

Photographs, retouched or not, do not represent reality. They never did. Digital retouching is just one of many tools in the toolbox.

(Besides, even setting all that aside, who exactly do you envision doing the "regulating" and "banning?" I think you just might have a few small first amendment issues there...)
posted by ook at 10:09 AM on April 4, 2009


I do think retouching should be regulated and that personally I would be very happy if it was completely banned.

While we're at it, let's ban painting, sculpture, and illustration - because you know, someone, somewhere may be making an image that makes you feel bad about yourself. Let's throw the printing press in there too - we wouldn't want anyone writing something that could harm your precious self esteem.

Surely you are joking? How would we even regulate it? Thou shalt not Liquify more than 10 pixels at a time?

Retouchers just get the hate because it's easy to compare the before and after. No one can say, "OMG! She looked totally different after the stylist got through with her!" because there's no way to see that unless you were on the set. And let me tell you, as someone who has worked on plenty of fashion shoots the magic the team of people hovering over the subject does far exceeds anything I can do in Photoshop.

Photography is an inherently dishonest medium. Repeat after me: photographs are not real. Fashion in particular is all about fantasy. Some people are going to project their own insecurities onto everything they see no matter how much or how little styling or retouching is done. The comments on these blogs are a perfect example - even when faced with part of the photograph's illusion, there are still people seeing things that aren't there and I think that says more about them than it does about the photographer or their team (the Kardashian "they lightened her skin, she was too black!!!" jumped out at me in particular - no they didn't, they just color corrected it so she wasn't magenta).
posted by bradbane at 10:39 AM on April 4, 2009


who exactly do you envision doing the "regulating" and "banning?" I think you just might have a few small first amendment issues there...

Well, I wasn't really campaigning for regulation, I just wanted to make my views clear so people didn't assume I was in favour of retouching because I was seeking to put blame elsewhere. And I think in one of the linked videos it was mentioned that in France it may become a requirement for details of all retouching which has been carried out on a photograph to be published, presumably with the photograph, which I think sounds like a great idea.

I would be happy if retouching was banned, that doesn't mean I think a ban is likely or workable, or wouldn't make plenty of people angry. Perhaps, if such a thing was considered, advertising regulations could play a part. Are there advertising regulations in America? Surely free speech doesn't include the right to make false statements in advertising? Or does it? If not perhaps there could be rules covering images used in adverts and on magazine covers, not covering things like costume, lighting, etc, but covering duct tape, retouching, and suchlike.
posted by haines at 11:09 AM on April 4, 2009


Why is retouching "false" but lighting and styling not? Why draw the line there? This to me just shows a massive ignorance of the process of making a photograph at this level. Should we ban certain focal lengths too? Is someone more or less real at 50mm or 130mm?
posted by bradbane at 11:24 AM on April 4, 2009


let's ban painting, sculpture, and illustration - because you know, someone, somewhere may be making an image that makes you feel bad about yourself.

The kind of regulation I was thinking of would only need to cover images which give the impression of being photographs of real people, used in the context of advertising or promotion. I wasn't thinking about regulating paintings. The difference is that people do not think that paintings represent something which really exists, do they? The thing about digital retouching which somewhat irks me is that the results represent themselves as something which they are not, in other words they set out to deceive. Surely most people would think digital manipulation is more devious than anything done on a photoshoot. Photography has been around for long enough that people are familiar with it. People expect a photograph to be of something which existed at some point (excepting those who are already sophisticated enough not to). At least on a photoshoot what the camera sees is something which actually exists in reality, and which someone would see if they put their eye to the viewfinder. Digital manipulation is still inherently more deceitful, as it creates something which looks as though it existed in reality, and it is done with the intention of making you believe that what you see actually did exist, but which didn't. That is a step beyond taking something which exists in reality and making it look better in reality. And the thing is the majority of people are well aware of the prevalence of makeup in fashion, but the majority of people aren't aware of the prevalence of digital manipulation, which makes the misdirection more effective. So I don't think my disdain for digital retouching is misplaced, regardless of whether it is something which will ever be regulated or not. And I don't feel particularly strongly that it should be banned or regulated. What I actually ideally would want, before any regulation of the media, which I am not actually generally in favour of, if you read my first comment in this thread, is for people to stop worrying about how they measure up to others and thinking that is important, and gain the sophistication to not be influenced unduly by the media.

Why is retouching "false" but lighting and styling not? Why draw the line there? This to me just shows a massive ignorance of the process of making a photograph at this level. Should we ban certain focal lengths too? Is someone more or less real at 50mm or 130mm?

Focal length doesn't really vary someone's appearance that much, does it? Unless you use a very wide-angle lens, in which case someone would spot that the image was strangely distorted.
posted by haines at 11:58 AM on April 4, 2009


not covering things like costume, lighting, etc, but covering duct tape, retouching, and suchlike.

That's my point exactly: you're trying to draw a line somewhere and say "these artificial constructs are fine, but those artificial constructs are not." There is no reasonable place to draw that line. Is eyeshadow and blush any less artificial than coloring in a photo after the fact? Is a padded bra substantively different from making the boobs look bigger with photoshop?

Photographs are not representations of reality. They never were. Literally the only thing different about digital retouching compared to all the other techniques is that it's relatively new, and we're not as used to it.

Surely free speech doesn't include the right to make false statements in advertising?

Well, sort of. You can't say "If you drink this beer, your penis will grow six inches longer." But you can imply "If you drink this beer, hot bikini-clad women will flock to you," just by showing a bunch of bikini-clad women flocking around the guy drinking beer.

This, again, is independent of whether the artifice comes from photo retouching or just from art direction and editorial decisionmaking. (Also, it's interesting to reread mrzarquon's comment in light of this point: in that case the retouching is done to make the images look more like reality, not less.)

Focal length doesn't really vary someone's appearance that much, does it?

Um... yes. It really, really does.
posted by ook at 12:01 PM on April 4, 2009


Digital manipulation is still inherently more deceitful, as it creates something which looks as though it existed in reality, and it is done with the intention of making you believe that what you see actually did exist, but which didn't.

Photography is inherently deceitful, as it creates something which looks as though it existed in reality, and it is done with the intention of making you believe that what you see actually did exist, but which didn't.
posted by bradbane at 12:13 PM on April 4, 2009


That said -- and I'm sorry bradbane and I seem to be ganging up on you, it's nothing personal -- I'm in complete agreement on this:

What I actually ideally would want[...] is for people to stop worrying about how they measure up to others and thinking that is important, and gain the sophistication to not be influenced unduly by the media.

I think that people becoming more aware of how heavily manipulated photographs are -- both digitally and with 'traditional' methods -- will help this process along. If people realized that photographs aren't any more "real" than paintings are, this wouldn't be a problem.

(Or rather, it would still be a problem, but only in the humans-are-innately-competitive-and-instinctively-drawn-towards-the-attractive sense, not in the it's-all-the-media's-fault sense.)
posted by ook at 12:18 PM on April 4, 2009


Photography is inherently deceitful, as it creates something which looks as though it existed in reality, and it is done with the intention of making you believe that what you see actually did exist, but which didn't.

Well, I suppose I would have to make the distinction between the level of deceit which takes place in a photograph before digital retouching, and the level of deceit which takes place after retouching. Before retouching you have something which, while not what it appears to be, could nevertheless exist in certain specialised circumstances. Digital manipulation presents something which could not exist, whatever the circumstances. While I am not saying that the facade of the photoshoot is not manipulative, I think digital manipulation pulls the wool over people's eyes to a greater extent, since the majority of people don't realise that the results are something that could not be achieved in reality.

Is eyeshadow and blush any less artificial than coloring in a photo after the fact? Is a padded bra substantively different from making the boobs look bigger with photoshop?

Yes, it is much less artificial, because it exists in reality. A person in real life can put on eye shadow, and wear a padded bra. They can't make their freckles even out, make their teeth line up, make their legs 30% longer. To me the dividing line between these kinds of artifice is not that hard to see. It is between what can exist in reality and what can't actually exist in reality. Again, I am not saying that what is done on a photoshoot is not manipulative, and I am not saying that retouching is the work of the devil, but on a gut level it seems to me that what is done through digital manipulation is just a little bit creepier than what is done on a set, because it is capable of any distortion conceivable, whilst remaining utterly convincing, and completely transparent, that is, people do not generally realise that such staggering manipulation has taken place, or that it could take place, and could achieve such non-intuitive results. I suppose eventually people will become more generally aware of it though.

Focal length doesn't really vary someone's appearance that much, does it?

Um... yes. It really, really does.


I think people watch enough TV not to be wrong-footed by things like focal length or camera angle.
posted by haines at 1:29 PM on April 4, 2009


OK, people can actually straighten their teeth in real life, but lengthening your legs is still pretty rare.
posted by haines at 1:38 PM on April 4, 2009


> in that case the retouching is done to make the images look more like reality, not less.

There is a TON of retouching done in many images we work with just for production, sometimes because it is cheaper than having to do a reshoot. As in the (now former) photo director let a photographer (who was a contractor) do an entire shoot on location in portrait instead of landscape.

Which is kind of a big deal when you are trying to fill an 11x17 page with a backdrop of the model, and instead of having 2/3rds or more of the image be of backdrop (the shot was on high megapixel Leaf cameras), they had an entire shoot of perfectly framed photos of the models, with absolutely no background to help fill the page. For one or two shots for a cover, that wouldn't be a problem, but when you are looking at a clone job requiring to fake more than 60% of an image so it first, for 80+ images, that all of a sudden becomes a very expensive mistake.

When I started, I had the same reservations thinking that all photoshopping was about was distorting body image, and realized that a good chunk of the work they were doing has not manipulating the body much at all, but trying to save photos that would have required a reshoot, or again, getting the printed catalog image of a sweater to match the real one as best as possible. They have done a few frankenstein jobs, but it becomes expensive and time consuming to do well. But really, they don't sell sexy clothes, so they aren't really in the market to make the boobs bigger and the legs longer. They just want to make shots that work and look nice. They aren't trying to sell a face lifting creme, or a scotch, or something to get you laid.

I think there could be a way to make it more clear that an image has been retouched, however it becomes difficult HOW to label something like that accurately, and how to enforce it. I've seen images that are 80% retouched and fake, but have had little if anything done to actual models. The background was swapped out, all the clothes was color matched in the prints, etc. At that point, it wouldn't even be cost effective to try to shave down the models waist size. But in the case of images such as the one shown here and here, I wonder how hard it would be to get the magazines to include the 'original' image on the inside cover.
posted by mrzarquon at 2:12 PM on April 4, 2009


They can't make their freckles even out, make their teeth line up, make their legs 30% longer.

Sure they can: they can put on concealer, get braces, and pose at an angle that exaggerates the length of the legs.

I think people watch enough TV not to be wrong-footed by things like focal length or camera angle.

What do you mean by "wrong-footed"? It still changes the viewer's perception of the model. One of the standard techniques for portrait photography is to stand way back and use a really long lens; this flattens the features for a more conventionally attractive appearance. This significantly distorts the real appearance of the model -- and the resulting photograph isn't any more or less "real" than if that distortion had been done with photoshop instead of with glass lenses.

(Or to approach that point from the other direction, one could argue that if you believe that people are so familiar with the effects of camera angles and lens technique that they can see through them to the reality, you must also agree they'll easily get used to seeing past these digital techniques as well. I don't accept the premise, though; I think you're aptly demonstrating that people are a lot less aware of the effects of these traditional techniques than they think they are.)

You're still operating from the basic assumption that photographs which haven't been digitally manipulated basically represent reality. This is a false assumption. The before-and-after mrzarquon links to is a fine example: yes, the 'after' in that case was done digitally. But she's wearing a frickin' corset. Crank that sucker a couple notches tighter, get her to pose a little more in profile to narrow the waist even more, throw in some more makeup and some nude-color support hose on the legs, and you can get the same exact "after" photo without digital manipulation. Neither more nor less real.

The creepy zombie barbies are out there too, sure, but they're obvious, and somewhat repellent, even to the untrained eye. I think that sort of extreme retouching is very much a passing phase; for this sort of thing to be effective it has to be subtle enough to not be consciously noticeable. Which puts it in range of doable-without-photoshop-if-you-have-enough-time (but you already have photoshop, so why bother)

realized that a good chunk of the work they were doing has not manipulating the body much at all, but trying to save photos that would have required a reshoot,

I noticed the same thing in these -- while there was a pretty reliable "make the legs thinner and the ass and boobs bigger" thing going on, most of the remaining retouching seemed to be correcting errors in lighting (shadows under the eyes, glossy skin reflections), smoothing out skin tone, and rearranging the background; all stuff that could've been achieved without digital techniques, given enough time and expertise.
posted by ook at 3:27 PM on April 4, 2009


I sometimes wonder that in this age of paparrazzi, if some of these magazine shoots are being counteracted by the street pictures that photographers take. Along with perfect cover shots, we are also bombarded with images of actresses going to Starbucks with their muffin-tops and weird skin at 8 in the morning. Those paparrazzi pics always seem to be taken in such a way to make the person look as bad as possible. I haven't seen any articles on this, but I would be curious to know what effect these type of pictures are having on young people in terms of body image.
posted by bluefly at 11:26 AM on April 5, 2009


Focal length and beauty...
posted by jfrancis at 2:50 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


> one could argue that if you believe that people are so familiar with the effects of camera angles and lens technique that they can see through them to the reality, you must also agree they'll easily get used to seeing past these digital techniques as well.

In some ways people are familiar with the distortions provided by cameras because they have access to the contrasting views. You take a photo of a loved one and realized it turns out horrible, it introduces you to the idea that a camera can portray reality different than how our eyes perceive it.

With the massive presence of digital retouching throughout the media image management process (magazine covers, films, commercials, digital video post processing, etc.) you end up creating an entirely false persona of a person that exists in the viewers eye with NO way for them to see a contrasting image. So there exists a dual representation of a model or actor(tress), the media composition and the real human being. And what happens when those two radically different images are contrasted against each other? Well, in this case of Jessica Simpson the assumption is NOT that all of those media images are false, but that she just got REALLY FAT. Now she may have in fact gained weight, but the two images are presented as if they were both reality. The reaction of the general public appears to be that they are not able to distinguish that the radical differences they are seeing are the result of retouching more than Jessica's diet.
posted by mrzarquon at 5:34 PM on April 5, 2009


Focal length and beauty...
That's an awesome example, jfrancis -- thank you. (For those who don't already know, a 50mm lens is generally considered to be the closest to what the human eye percieves.)

I guess part of my frustration with all this is that you don't even need retouching to present a false impression of the shape of the human body... you just keep hiring unreasonably skinny models and replace them if they start aging at all or eating like normal human beings.

When the starting point is already waaaay over to one side of the bell curve, why get upset over the relatively tiny extra bit of unreality you get from photoshop?
posted by ook at 11:27 AM on April 6, 2009


> you just keep hiring unreasonably skinny models and replace them if they start aging at all or eating like normal human beings.

But what about the portrayal of people who aren't just models. IE magazine covers of famous celebrities. There is very much a difference between an anonymous "model" portraying a specific body type, but when they are digitally forcing all portrayals of a human body in a magazine to all share the same idealized body figure, it is where the results are significantly different than just photography tricks. Remember, you can still only do so much with corsets and light tricks and cremes. You'd have to have some sophisticated rigging and forced perspective to replace the arms of one model with those of another.

That is really the problem with the digital retouching, it can, after the fact, change the appearance of every single person in a magazine, movie or other media to match some persons idealized perceptions of the body. I imagine in a case like the Beyonce one, someone may have just said "make her skin more appealing" and that is what was produced.

While it is possible to do extensive manipulations and changes of the appearance of an individual in camera, it is the consistency and speed with which they are able to churn out images using the digital techniques that is the disturbing part. One way to put it is that the camera tricks have to be unique and thought out for the individual, resulting in a beautified image of that individual. The photoshopping is just slapping the same mold on every image that passes through and trimming out the parts that don't fit. And that is done because it is cheap.

We bill $40 to remove a mole and to clear up a face.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:48 AM on April 6, 2009


But what about the portrayal of people who aren't just models. IE magazine covers of famous celebrities.

The difference between models and celebrities is much smaller than that between either of them and a normal body shape.

But your overall point is well taken -- I don't mean to imply that digital manipulation is completely insignificant, just that it's only one ingredient in a much larger picture.
posted by ook at 12:15 PM on April 6, 2009


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