Most people are aware these days that images undergo "retouching" However, let me explain, expose, defend as well as expresses support and for and displeasure in the current state of "retouching" in imagery.
In 2001 fellow photographer and digital post expert formed a company called Digital Retouch. We were one of the first full on digital celebrity, beauty retouching companies in Los Angeles. We had a few really established clients/friends. And we were some of the first post production men to figure out how to use Photoshops (at that time new) tool, liquify. Liquify back then left a trail of distorted pixels that make it extremely obvious that you had performed a little nip tuck. However, after we cracked that nut, it was obvious our skills would be in demand. In our few years of business we had retouched the likes of : Adrian Brody, Alicia Keyes, Ann Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Ben Affleck, Beyonce Knowles, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Colin Farrel, Drew Barrymore, Faith Hill, Halle Berry, Jennifer Conelly, Jennifer Garner, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Biel, Jessica Simpson, Jude Law, Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, and Tom Cruise. We were retouching fashion stories and Covers for magazines such as : Blackbook Magazine, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, ELLE (UK), ELLE (US), Entertainment Weekly, Flaunt Magazine, French Vogue, GQ Magazine (German). GQ Magazine (US), Greek Vogue, In Style Magazine, Interview Magazine, Italian Vogue, Oprah Magazine, People Magazine, Playboy Magazine, Rolling Stone Magazine, Russian Vogue, Shape Magazine, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues, Stiletto Magazine (Paris), Spanish Vogue TV Guide, Vibe Magazine and Vogue Homme. And mind you, that was just in the first few years of business. Since then we have done countless other celebrities, magazines, and Ad campaigns.
SO, what is my position on image retouching and "post production"... Well the simple answer is that there is no simple answer. Historically images have always been altered. Lenses, lighting tricks, dark room, films, print papers all manipulate the negatives interpretation of "real". In addition to all the photographic manipulation large negatives have been airbrushed as the analog form of "retouching". But lets take this future. The whole multi-billion dollar "beauty" industry is nothing more then a form of "retouching". And if you really think about it; What is mascara, blush, lipstick, "concealer"... hair extensions, coloring... high heals, stockings, push up bras... and on and on.
At one time, not so long ago, there were "super models" they reached the same "celebrity" status as Actors and Actresses. They appeared on the cover of ALL the magazines and were the "standard" of beauty. These "freaks" of nature were so rare that only a handfull of models truly reached this status. They had the correct height, size, symmetry, gate, and projected a memorable personality or had a certain "flair". They looked great at all angels in any situation, in anything they wore. Top models today still need to meet all these criteria. It is just very difficult for the young ingenue to be discovered and "made" in to a "supermodel". Household names like Heidi Klum are made not from covers of Vogue, but for their "reality/challenge" shows. The main reason for this change in culture ... simply put... Photoshop.
Photoshop allowed us photographers to "correct" all the beauty "red flags" that was deemed undesirable. Before Photoshop magazines routinely used the 14 -19 year old face to represent "idealized" perfection; you know the skin with out a single sing of "aging". Well it is no secret that a young celebrity has an increased notoriety and can sell more magazines then just a pretty face. Photoshop's ability to digitally "retouch" and "reshape" actors ushered in the "shift" from models to "celebrity" covers ultimately ending the age of the super model.
So, back to the issue: Is retouching a bad thing or good thing. Well, lets narrow that down. I think image "manipulation" is not as much an issue in the societal debate as much as we are discussing "beauty" retouching. So lets just focus on idealized beauty and the role of retouching.
My opinion, yes it is necessary and actually helps create accurate perceptive "reality". Is it abused at times to create a "distorted" sense of "beauty" and false representation of reality; ALL the time. Who' fault is it, what can be done? Ultimately, consumer awareness is the solution, and most likely a disclaimer on images that are "selling" products based on the images that have falsely manipulated the products real effectiveness.
So let me explain what I mean by retouching can actually "help" make something "more" real.Look at this series of images taken with my 100mm lens for a beauty image.
So here is a "reality" check, we are ALL hairy. As I took pictures of faces for "beauty" photography, I started to understand that our "perception" of reality is NOT reality. The camera obviously doesn't lie. However, when I am shooting models, their skin looks amazing, definitely hairless, most of the time pretty flawless. However, once I have the image enlarged on a 30" screen, every black head, hair, dead skin cell, out of place eyebrow hair, nose hair, fur, blood shot eye vein.... ALL if it is frozen in time on digital record.
So I started to ask myself why this was. What I realized, on average, when I look at someone their "head" is only like the size of a fist in my general view when talking to someone. I also realized I never kept full eye contact let alone "stare" at their facial features, let alone imperfections. For fun some time talk to someone and never break I contact and stare at freckles or any one specific part of their face; and see how awkward it gets.
A magazine "full face" cover shot is practically as intimate as talking to someone as close as five inches from their face. As another exercise; do some "close" talking... like five inches from someones face. Yes, it will be awkward as well, but you will definitely notice blemishes, birthmarks, wrinkles, makeup application, etc..
Lighting, when we look at people typical lighting is muted, or warm, or backlit. In contrast a cover or beauty model is photographed under a harder "unforgiving" light and normally the image is sharp showing much detail. In "life" our own perception is effected by behavior norm, like not staring at someone to long, softer lighting conditions then that of "studio" photography, and proximity to the person you are conversing with. In general, YOUR perception of most women is that of clean, soft, and certainly hairless faces.
So, getting back to my point earlier. YES, retouching IS necessary. It actually helps alter magnified reality to be more representative of "perceptual" reality.
Retouching also saves time in correcting many production variables that could eat up too much shoot time, not maximizing productive image capture and wasting talent and resource on "details" that can be resolved with a few click of the mouse.
It is not so much that retouching is a bad thing; it is a practical tool, and it is here to stay. However, when used in excess or with intent to not just "correct" but to alter or defy age and shape... the blurry line is clearly crossed. We all are aware of celebrity and its influence/impact on society, However, the idea of skin like a 20 year old on 40-50 year old celebrities IS sending the wrong message to women. But a multibillion dollar fear industry depends on selling you the message, "Don't feel good in your skin". BUT, in all reality we the critical audience and image makers, and self-conscience subjects all guilty of the human condition. Is it "wrong", is it just a little "white lie"... not sure. However, in my opinion, it the current "fad".
Every decade seems to have a "look" based on the technology available to the image makers. 4x5 negative, 2 1/4 negative, 35mm, E-6 or cross processing, film types, developing, and printing techniques... and now DIGITAL. Digital technology has advanced image capture and post production, but also defining this decades "look". For better or worse the look of now is the look of "flawless" skin... no veins, no wrinkles, no hair, hyper-perfection. Pandora' s box is open, and who knows what changing technology will drive the next fad, trend or look.