Nigel Barker Tackles the Controversy of Digital Retouching

Digital retouching is a touchy subject. Many see it as virtual plastic surgery, a dishonest concealment of the person’s true self — creating an unrealistic standard of beauty. Others view it as a means of helping a person look their best, or to achieve an artistic vision. Either way, there doesn’t seem to be much sign that this trend is about to change. Countless articles have been dedicated to this debate, but it is not every day that we hear a famous photographer weigh in on this issue. In this video, fashion photographer and past judge of America’s Next Top Model, Nigel Barker steps up to defend this form of image manipulation with some interesting justifications.

Fashion and lifestyle magazines have been accused for years of perpetuating a false ideal. Though there are sensible examples of retouching, we have also seen middle-aged celebrities depicted with teenage complexions, and model’s limbs that have been stretched to a point that would make a circus contortionist envious. Barker addresses these controversies by making references to history and its many odd practices to achieve standards of beauty, emphasizing that this pursuit of the ideal has been with us for a very long time. He points out that in one way or another, we have been controlling the way we look for a millennia.

Barker also makes the distinction that the camera is not an impartial recording tool. As long as photography has existed, camera settings, lighting, styling, and printing techniques have all contributed to some sort of alteration of the person’s image. Digital retouching, as Barker explains, is just an extension of this.

Many watching this may not be satisfied with his comments on the topic, and would still like to see changes to the fashion industry's portrayal of age and the human body. Barker does make a stand at structurally altering a person’s physical features and urges people to use taste and common sense when editing an image. A sensible statement, but it may have been valuable to hear his thoughts on how the standards of beauty is changing, or can change in society.

For me, retouching is acceptable to bring out the best in a person I'm photographing. It is all about the intention. If the image is created for a fashion magazine, it is often about idealism, stylization, and fantasy. The person photographed is simply a component of the overall image and the final result is essentially a product or an artwork, not something that is supposed to be attainable.

If it is a portrait representing the person, it is understandable when people react negatively to heavy-handed smoothing or alteration of the subject’s features. Often, the individual character of their appearance is part of their beauty. This is demonstrated by photographer Peter Lindbergh who is famous for his "unretouched" images appearing in magazines like Vogue.

There will be an endless supply of tabloid photos that will always serve as a reminder of what famous stars look like in their sweaty gym gear or when they have “let themselves go.” I don't think we need to worry too much about realism being lost. Most people are aware enough to know that most fashion images are indeed retouched, and the fashion industry is going to continue retouching because their audience like seeing beautiful images of beautiful people. Barker’s insights may not be original but it does highlight that this is not a new phenomenon, stating, “We’ve been doing it forever, and we’re not going to stop.”

What do you think of his statements? Does he go far enough to address the issues around digital retouching? Let us know in the comments below.

[via Behind The Glass]

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14 Comments

Justin Haugen's picture

I LOVE that there is platform, a marketplace for the preparation, creativity, production, and post-processing that goes into high end commercial work. It's fantasy. The only problem with it is the fantasy is being sold as reality to impressionable people. It's a societal issue, not an artistic one. I don't really feel that people in this industry have to apologize or feel overly self-conscious of the effect their work has on people, but I also recognize it's a tragedy when someone idealizes the conventions of beauty that are perpetuated in the images they see.

Where it is disingenuous is when it happens where we don't expect it to. I think it's mutually agreeable that it doesn't belong in journalism.

Michael Comeau's picture

Retouching from the film era is actually a way trickier issue because it just wasn't talked about.

Pick up a book from someone like Herb Ritts and you'll see 100% flawless skin on the women.

The same is true for any big editorial/fashion photographer from the film days.

Medium and large format capture tons of detail, yet you see absolute perfection on skin in the pictures, even with very hard light.

Heck, Avedon had tons of retouching work done on even his starkest portraiture work like In the American West.

http://imageonpaper.com/tag/richard-avedon/

At least these days, people know that what they're seeing isn't realistic.

oops...got attached to wrong reply. disregard.

Retouching yadda yadda yada.. yeah so let's make a video on the topic but stand outside on a windy day for no apparent or good reason, and let the wind overpower 80% of what's being said. Unwatchable. WTF?

retouching images is permissible under all circumstances. retouching the sound is not only impossible, but completely forbidden in all cases. now go outside in a hurricane and make me a video.

For photos that are meant to be realistic, I prefer subtle; I don't like heavy HDR processing that makes it look like it cannot exist in nature. If it's a fantasy photo with compositing to make the absurd, then yes; I enjoy the irony of the photo. A professional photographer did a presentation at the local camera club of some of his composites; one was a self portrait of him at Area 41 with UFOs flying about; another was elephants getting washed at a car wash.

Paul Stonehouse's picture

I am sorry to be tough on Fstoppers, but this video is really poor quality. I get it, it s a message on retouching and how it is viewed by everyone.....but the quality is shocking, the sound quality is terrible. The fact that Nigel Barker has a light pole sticking out of his right rear most of the video is insane....please, please, please, I head to your sight daily as the content is usually top notch and professionally done...but this has lowered your standards by a country mile...did someone view this first? I'd prefer nothing new, than this.....check out Archag comments too!

Jason Lau's picture

I agree with your assessment of the video Paul and Archag. It was a tough call to share it or not, but it is not that common for photographers like Barker to speak up about topics like retouching so openly. Barker shared this on his own page. His comments are valuable as an insight into how people within the industry feel about this. Hopefully the makers of this video will read the comments and lift the quality of their work.

Dan Ostergren's picture

I agree with Nigel on the topic, but I also found Peter Lindbergh's recent unretouched images of Kate Moss to be incredibly inspiring in the fact that they weren't digitally retouched. On the topic of those photos however, both makeup and light were used to very heavily contour Kate's face, and to me, like Nigel said, that in itself is a form of retouching.

As far as the video quality goes, I think that's irrelevant to the message and easy to look past. Thanks for the article.

Francisco Hernandez's picture

I agree. When the Colbie Caillat video came out where she takes off her makeup many of my friends posted about how that was true beauty. The lighting was high key and very much beauty stylized . The lighting displayed everyone in a completely false way. Nobody walks outside on a cloudy day with a hairlight on them or reflectors below them. The lighting was, like Nigel said, a form of retouching.

Amanda Warzecha's picture

I understand where he's coming from, but his attitude as he speaks about it doesn't help diffuse the negative feelings coming from the audience he is speaking to, which almost nulls the point of him speaking on it at all.

Also, using history as an excuse in general is not a good excuse for your own actions. The examples he used are evidently self-destructive to those who practiced it and didn't help his own stance at all. He was trying to be logical and reasonable but unfortunately his own frustration about the controversy is the most evident message in the video.

Erick Rodriguez's picture

I'm sure he was citing history to reinforce how people have always applied a sort of retouching to change their appearance. Nigel's attitude could have been a little better however he is clearly passionate about his opinion on the subject.

Robert Herrera's picture

I re-touch myself every morning ;) hehe

I can agree with Barker to a certain extent. There is a lot of things we manipulate in real life - But the use of liquifying, manipulating bone structure via Dodging and Burning is something that is being misused. I dont really bother that much because I'm aware of that, since I'm a photographer. But it is a shame that many young people thinks that people actually look like they do in the high fashion magazines - because they really don't in most cases.