I usually devote these posts strictly to art. However, as a good portion of my income is garnered from photo-retouching, I need at this time to write down some thoughts on what has become the key ingredient in the lion’s share of the visuals that surround our every-day lives.
Back in the days of film, darkrooms, and emulsion, the only way to remove a pesky piece of dust (or a political dissident) from a photograph required specialty paints, air brushes, precise tools, and unusual skill. Photo-retouching — changing the composition or elements of a photo outside the camera — was an art form of unusual patience and handwork.
In 1987 Thomas and John Knoll started developing a direct-editing, computer graphics program. While working at Industrial Light and Magic on the film The Abyss, John used this program to solve some problems making a computer-generated, alien life-form transform into a live-action splash of water on the floor. This was the first commercial use of what would later become Adobe Photoshop.
My first experience in photo-retouching was cleaning up prints by hand with a friend of my grandfather’s. A photo finisher and retoucher, Charlie Dorrin had a vast collection of glass plate negatives that he and my brother would print, and my mother, brother, and I would sell at flea markets around New England. I started using Photoshop around 1993 when it was Photoshop 2.5 or so.
Photoshop has revolutionized the industry to the point where traditional photo-retouching is all but a lost art. Along with other advancements in computer graphics, we now have an unfathomable depth of choices to create any eye candy we can conceive of. Our imaginations are now the only limit.
However, a whole raft of communication setbacks have emerged from this innovation. Chiefly, our body image has suffered — and not just on a psychological level. In the everybody-thinks-they-can-do-it world of mobile phone photography, plastic surgeons have noticed an increase in requests for nose jobs based on their patients’ observations of their own selfies. This is due to the fact that the angle of the lens on most mobile phone cameras presents the nose as 30 percent larger at arm’s length than it appears when the photo is snapped by another person.
I’m not a Luddite. Photoshop is my favorite video game.
But when an artist sketches or paints a human figure, we look to accentuate the form of the subject and directly communicate what we see as truth and beauty. We interpret the image in the moment, by ourselves, using a great deal of training, and thousands of hours of practice. We translate it while we render it, rather than recording it first and editing out the shortcomings.
Art is art (making an image), and photography is photography (capturing an image). Great photography can be an art in the hands of a master, but Photoshop has blurred the lines.
For instance, Photos and video often add weight by flattening the figure against the viewing plane. As a photo-retoucher, art directors often ask me to do things like reduce lines that make models look chubby. But they also have me remove skin blemishes and wrinkles, as well as remove colors that are reflected into fill areas and shadows—tones that, as a painter, I would look to add to make the painting look more real.
In the end, the art director is happy, the client is happy, and I get paid… but the result is a flatter, faker-looking photo-retouching job—a look that is all too common these days.
Recently I was asked to remove an anatomical landmark known as the acromion process from a model’s shoulders to make them look “rounder.” I was a little shocked at being requested to mutate the figure of what was already a beautiful woman by removing a curve made by actual bone. But it occurred to me that there are two perverting forces at work here.
The first is the art director’s intentions to tell a story. Their aim is to remove any distractions from that story. For example, Tina Fey has the polished, smooth face of Casper the Friendly Ghost in certain TV spots because the last thing the art director wants you to think is “How did she get that scar on her chin?” The story they want to tell is about a beautiful person who uses a credit card you ought to have.
The next is the client’s naivety. I often give retouching requests the benefit of the doubt because I don’t want to get too close to the work and miss something. However, more often than not, a client request is based on things that just plain bug them. A shadow that, to me, the artist, gives the image depth and contrast, to some clients looks “weird.” A wrinkle in a pant leg that is too close to the talent’s personal area will become the source of a retouching obsession.
This is mostly due to the fact that the average advertising buyer has no clue what they’re really looking at! They want to be the art director but they don’t really know how. They have to make a decision so that those who’ve hired them see that they are doing their job, but that decision is rarely “let’s leave that photo alone.”
It’s been my experience that, at the worst, the client and the art director engage in a subtle battle of their wants and needs, pushing the image around and bullying it into deformity. This is not a conspiracy against normally-proportioned people — it’s an unconscious bias caused by naivety.
So next time you see a perfume commercial with a model so thin she could blow away on the next breeze – or a fashion photo of a person who looks as though he is from another planet – keep in mind that somewhere in the process there is a decision-maker who did not go to art school. They have based much of their judgement on the look of other advertisements, and that reference rife with the bad choices of other people.