It seems like over the last 10 years, more and more photographers, retouchers, and influencers have been accused of promoting distorted and unrealistic body image expectations to children and the general public. As a photographer, I was curious if retouching with Photoshop was more or less deceptive than using face-altering makeup. Today, I put my social experiment to the test.
Everyone knows how prevalent photo manipulation is within our society. Companies from Ralph Lauren to L'Oreal have been guilty of warping and manipulating pixels beyond a reasonable level in their advertising and marketing material. Many proponents for the regulation of false and sensationalized advertising argue that by manipulating models to appear more beautiful by way of cleaner skin and thinner physiques, commercial advertisements are destroying the standards of what it means to look natural and healthy.
In March 27th, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen introduced H.R. 4341, also known as the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014, into the 113th Congress of the United States. This bill aimed at requiring the Federal Trade Commission to come up with a strategy to "reduce the use, in advertising and other media for the promotion of commercial products, of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted." The bill was backed by many studies that focused on mental health of young children who continually viewed photos of people altered to look more beautiful, tall, skinny, and free of facial blemishes and inconsistencies. Ultimately, the bill did not pass, but it caused an uproar among many parents and adults asking for more accountability among corporations who use highly "Photoshopped" images in their advertising.
As a photographer who has relied on professional retouching over my career, I've always thought the idea of censoring or regulating the artistic expression of a creative was a slippery slope to walk. On one hand, I hate the idea that we as photographers are promoting unrealistic body image and possibly causing mental and emotional harm to young adults who often aspire to be as beautiful as the people in our images. On the other hand, though, if retouching and image manipulation is done within reason, I think software like Adobe Photoshop is simply a tool that allows creative people to build and execute their vision. I honestly do not know where we should draw the line that is not to be crossed, but I can empathize with both sides of the argument.
In thinking about this dilemma, a completely different thought crossed my mind. Why does society shame and ostracize photography retouching like it is the root of all psychological evils, but at the same time accept or at least turn a blind eye to the idea that makeup enhances the female face in a way that is totally acceptable? Why is Photoshop bad, but makeup totally acceptable? After all, applying powders, gloss, and other forms of paint is as far from a healthy normal body image as the same results done with software.
My friend, Angel Rodriguez, who is an amazing makeup artist here in Puerto Rico, makes an interesting point in saying: "but with makeup, you can actually look like that and wear it out in public." While this is definitely true and a good counterargument to why makeup is more "real" than retouching done to digital images, the underlying concept is still the idea of creating a false reality.
So, What Looks More Natural: Photoshop or Makeup?
Conversations like the one outlined above helped inspire this entire social photography project. What would it look like if we shot the same model both with and without makeup? The makeup image could not be retouched at all, but the non-makeup image could be retouched by one of the industry's best retouchers. Would one look better than the other? Would one look more natural? Maybe the image with only makeup would still look less than perfect without the help of digital manipulation software.
For this experiment, I hired two different models with two completely different skin types. The first model, Aria D' Mir, has dark skin and a very clean complexion, while Stephanie Lu has a much stronger bone structure and a much lighter skin tone. Even though the point of this photoshoot was to explore makeup and skin retouching, I think a lot of people overlook just how important and misleading professional photography lighting can be on a subject. So, not only did I photograph two different women, I also lit them in two different ways that are very common in the advertising and fashion world.
As you can see in the image sets above and below, makeup clearly adds an unreal effect that doesn't always capture the true beauty of a person, but in its application, it is technically real and can be replicated. The images on the left have been retouched by the amazingly talented Susan Rockstraw, and although this effect may not be able to be replicated 100% in real life, I feel like it is a more accurate representation of what the models actually look like naturally.
Before and After
For those of you curious to see how far Susan took the retouching on both of the natural images without makeup, I've posted before and after images below. In both of these cases, I feel like Susan did a reasonable and subtle retouch that did not overly embellish the natural look of the model, but simply displayed the natural beauty in a clean and respectful way. Perhaps you do not feel the same way about this as I do, though.
Many of you have said that the retouching above did not go far enough and was too subtle. I also had my retoucher do another edit where she applied "digital makeup" in post production to try to mimic a makeup look without actually using makeup. You can see the two images below and see which one is your favorite. I've also included a before and after image with a more aggressive natural retouch that completely removes the acne.
What Do You Think?
Part of what makes this experiment interesting is hearing what other people think. Which set of images do you prefer and do you think one technique, makeup or Photoshop, reduces the authenticity of the model?
I'm sure photographers will have a different opinion from retouchers and women will have a different opinion than men. Maybe even moms will have a different opinion than daughters. Whatever your background or however you identify yourself, I'm super curious to see if you think Photoshopping images is worse or better than models using makeup. Perhaps both makeup and Photoshop are equally as deceiving to the viewer. I'll take it a step further and ask if images that utilize retouching, especially those used for advertising, should have a disclaimer that the image has been altered, and if so, should advertisers also have to issue a disclaimer when professional lighting and makeup have been employed?