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]