Thursday, November 3, 2011

Photoshop, Values, and the Rabbit Hole

"Feminists do the best Photoshop." —Tina Fey

Reading Rebekah’s “photo philosophy” made me consider my own. For a feminist beauty blog, I’ve barely touched on airbrushing here, and there’s a reason for that: It doesn't really faze me. It’s not that I don’t value what feminist scholars like the wonderful Beauty Redefined have to say about retouching; it’s that when you’re steeped in it all day, as I was when working in ladymags, you begin to see it as relatively benign. I tend to agree with Tina Fey’s assessment in Bossypants: “Photoshop is just like makeup.... If you’re going to expend energy being mad about Photoshop, you’ll also have to be mad about earrings. No one’s ears are that sparkly!... I for one and furious that people are allowed to turn sideways in photographs! I won’t rest until people are only allowed to be photographed facing front under a fluorescent light.”

I see the dangers of taking retouching for granted, but I’m more concerned with the number of images we’re faced with every day than what is done to any particular image. I’m thrilled that people are now educated on the preponderance of retouching, but done well, I don’t see it as particularly different than photographers using good lighting. 

More to the point here: On my own photos, I’m thrilled to have it. I’m glad to darken the eyes a little, take out a hint of shine, fix a blemish here or there. I agree with what Rebekah said in the post that inspired this one: “I want my photos to reflect the history of my life, not the history of how I wish my life had looked.” But I also agree with Fey, who wrote of her cover shoot with Bust: “Feminists do the best Photoshop… They leave in your disgusting knuckles, but they may take out some armpit stubble. Not because they’re denying its existence, but because they understand that it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.”

I don’t need every photo to make me look like it’s my best day in the best light (and even if I did, I don’t have the skills do make that happen). But if there’s something I can alter digitally that I’d be able to fix with makeup or a lighting change, I’ll do it. I’ll blot out shine, smooth out lipstick, add a little mascara. I’ll take out acne, but not my (colorless) mole; I’ll play with the color balance to make me look more luminous, but I won’t alter the image to make me look lit like a movie star.

In the name of transparency, I’ll show you what I do:

The photo on the left is the original. The middle one is what I’d do if I were posting it to this blog: I put on a warm color filter and toned down the shine; it took about two minutes. The one on the right is what I’d do if I were supplying my photo to an outlet I thought might have a broad circulationa writer pic in a print magazine, for example. (For that I’d probably try to take out the background too, but my powers are limited.) I refined the color balance, including darkening my neck so that my face doesn’t look quite as peachy. I took out the stray loop of hair and cleaned up the flyaways. I evened out the lipstick and further blotted the shine, though I left some in because I'm usually pretty shiny (you may call it dewy if you wish). I darkened the eye area to make it jump a bit more.

I also did something questionable on the last photo that I wouldn’t have done if this were a “real” situation: I ever so slightly trimmed my jawline on the right side of the picture (left side of my face). I’d like to say I purposefully did this as an illustration of how slippery the slope can be, but to be frank, that slippery slope was accidental. I’m justifying it by saying that my head was tilted so the flesh of my face was arranged a little oddly, but I know that’s a justification. I altered it because I could; I altered it because once I’d done all the other stuffthe stuff that could be fixed by a makeup applicationI wanted to take it a step beyond. I wanted to see the jawline I had 10 pounds ago. I wanted to share that image with myself. And nownot in the name of beauty, but in the name of transparency and perhaps a hint of shameI share it with you.

In the same way a photograph of an event can become a primary memory of the event, photographs can become extensions of our self-image; it’s why we can feel nearly affronted upon seeing a less-than-flattering photo of ourselves. And, for a moment, my self-image felt pretty good when I saw this brighter, more luminous version of myself. But I’m not about to argue that altering images to closer align with an imposed beauty standard should be any sort of stand-in for a healthy self-image. (I've got more thinking to do on this, clearly.) It was alarming to find myself going down the Photoshop rabbit hole: I thought I’d spend five minutes blotting my shine, and twenty minutes later I’d lost 10 pounds and had combed my hair. Perhaps that’s where the problem with Photoshop truly is: Not in the fact that it’s done, but in the fact that it can be difficult to know where the line should be drawn.

Like I said, I wouldn’t have shaved millimeters off my jaw if I were using this photo in another situationif for no other reason because it would be disingenuous for a writer who covers women and imagery to do so. But if a retoucher took my raw photo and did the same, I probably wouldn’t even noticeit's barely perceptible, and more important, the altered photo matches my mental image of how I look at my best. I’d just be chuffed that it turned out so nicely, not knowing that the retoucher took my face into her hands and imposed her own ideas onto it. For that’s what we’re getting with retouching: Not just an unreal image, but craftsmanship, which reflects the aesthetics and values of the craftsman. My values allow for shine blotting and more luminous eyes; they don’t allow for jaw shaving. Someone else’s values might not allow for the eye touchup; another wouldn’t hesitate to do even more. Our cultural values have spoken pretty loudly about not wanting out-of-control airbrushing, but neither do we necessarily want raw images eitherand even if we did, as per basic photographic theory (the photographer "retouches" merely by deciding where to point her camera), we’d be out of luck anyway.

What are your photographic values? Or, as Rebekah put it, what is your photo philosophy? Is it in line with how you’d alter or not alter your photographs? 

Edited to add: There's a poll on the right-hand sidebar of The Beheld. Where do you draw the photo retouching line? Please answer!


  1. I don't mind a little Photoshop here and there, but I draw the line on altering features and reducing body parts. For me. When I found out that this was a common editorial practice in the lady mags, I was initially angry. I felt cheated. It doesn't bother me so much anymore now that I know what's going on. I guess feeling duped is what bothered me. Now that I am "in" on the game I just look at mag images like they are paintings or something. Not real!

    Interesting you post this today, because I was photoshopping (or editing, I don't have PS) an image for a future blog post. I have a mole on my cheek that I absolutely HATE and for a split second (these are close ups for a review on a lotion I am trying out) I wanted to remove the mole. Or blur it. Or shave it off the images where it's on the side of my face. I hate it so much! But, then I decided that would be cheating.

  2. I agree it's harmless to reduce shine or cover up a blemish - something makeup can easily take care of. But when you start increasing boob size, slimming a waistline - that's when it goes too far in my opinion.

  3. I've actually spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this very thing. My main squeeze is a designer, and I run a books blog where I run a weekly photo of myself reading. I have easy access to skillful photo manipulation.

    And yet, I decided early on to only run unprocessed photos. Because my books blog was inspired by personal style blogs (big photo, and ultra-personal writing on the subject) I knew that I wanted to avoid the ubiquitous cleaned-up and warm filtered look of most blogs out there. I really wanted to have a unique photo aesthetic, and while I was tempted to process the photos to make myself look better, I figured that such a degree of vanity, while appropriate for a style blog, was not necessarily fitting for a books blog. And not really fitting for me. When I tell people that a raw photo of me goes up every week, blemishes or no, they often come back at me by saying that I'm so brave! So I still get an ego boost all the same.

  4. In publishing our photobook, the photographer and I struggled with this as well.

    The pictures that we were collecting were full of blemishes and moles and bra straps and minor personal imperfections, but the ultimate message of the book contained a direct shot *against* the beauty industry and its preternaturally photoshopped models.

    So we left our book's models completely UNphotoshopped, with one very small exception: we did away with one camel toe. ;)

  5. I've felt the same kind of "meh" attitude towards Photoshop as you, as a result of all the ladymag indoctrination -- not only does it start to seem benign, I think a lot of women's magazine editors perpetuate this idea that everybody knows Photoshop happens and all of the images you see aren't real -- so any woman who is still comparing herself to the celebrities and models she sees in the media is just being dense.

    Alas, I learned when I went to beauty school (and pretty much anytime you talk to somebody who doesn't work in lady mags!) that this is so not the case. Not to be a link whore, but here's the post about that, in case anyone is interested:

    My overall feeling is still that a little Photoshop to fix lighting and even remove blemishes and stray hairs is fine -- the headshot posted on my About page has been photoshopped for that kind of thing (also my bra strap had popped out of my sleeve in the original shot because I'm classy like that!). But it is such a slippery slope and the truth is, most women/girls absolutely do NOT know when they're looking at an accurate representation of what someone looks like and when they're looking at someone who has been oh-so-subtly enhanced -- and we do compared ourselves to those images, which is problematic. Because what's easy to do in Photoshop (give yourself the jaw line of you 10 lbs lighter) is much more difficult in real life.

  6. I don't have a huge problem with photoshopped images, since I know that it is a fact that most pictures I will see had it done. I tend to think of it in the same way that I think of gory movies- it may be convincing, but I know that it isn't real. When it comes to my own pictures though, I don't do anything except perhaps strategically place the camera or turn my head. I want to remember how I actually looked at that moment in time if I ever look back. I do wonder how much that would change if my blog or facebook reached a larger audience. I have at least one picture on my blog where I have a huge zit, and my hair looks weird... If I knew that 25,000 people or even 100 people would see it at the time, I wonder if I would have even posted it.

  7. I guess that pretty much everyone below a certain age is aware that any published image has probably been photoshopped, but since I am above that age, I still (maybe subconsciously) compare myself (as I know myself to be through unretouched photos and mirrors) with images of other women that have probably been enhanced. When I was a teenager, I noticed that whenever I read fashion magazines I got depressed because there was no way in hell that I would ever look like the women therein (and I realize now that they were probably retouched even then). So I stopped reading fashion magazines, and felt infinitely better, but I was also divorcing myself from an aspect of life (caring about my looks within the context of my society) that, if it hadn't been so depressing, could have been fun and rewarding. I blame the retouching for the depressing aspect. What is the point of providing an image if it isn't an accurate image of what the person would look like if you saw her on the street? I'm okay with changing the lighting and choosing against shots in which you are sneezing or hiccuping or distorting yourself in some other way, but at some point the tooth whitening and jaw shaving and wattle removal becomes misrepresentation, and what's the point?

  8. Thanks for the link-fame, Ms. Autumn!

    “Photoshop is just like makeup.... If you’re going to expend energy being mad about Photoshop, you’ll also have to be mad about earrings. No one’s ears are that sparkly!... I for one and furious that people are allowed to turn sideways in photographs!"

    Decent point, lousy analogy. Deliberately lousy? Comparing photoshop to makeup or Spanx would be more logical than earrings, since the "illusion" of sparkling earlobes won't fool anyone past the age of 3.

    I agree that there are much, much bigger problems with women's representation in media than a little touching up here and there, but I do think that our unreal expectations for women's appearance makes it easier for people (male and female alike) to focus too much on appearances. Maybe "feminist editing," to borrow Fey's concept, is a step in the right direction. Or maybe it's a different kind of deception, maybe young girls see those images and think "But it can't be 'shopped, see how real her knuckles look?"

  9. Very interesting!

    Honestly, I think the retouching you did is fine. I don't even consider changing the light to be retouching. You didn't photoshop off redness or blemishes. You didn't use the liquify tool.

    In any case, I do often photoshop my photos because after 10 years of blogging, it's boring to me to just throw a photo up. I crop, I adjust balances. I use filters. SOmetimes I look better, and sometimes I don't.

  10. Cameo, I think that the educational component of Photoshop is key. Images have an enormous impact that goes beyond reason, so I don't think that us being more knowledgeable about retouching means that we aren't affected by it--but I just think that in general we're far more skeptical of images than we were before. (And to prove a point, I have no idea what mole you're talking about, for real.)

    Cristina, so far the poll results agree with you!

    Emily, the "brave" comment is so interesting to me (and heh, way to work the system! you still get the ego boost). Even though we all work through the work un-airbrushed and not perfectly posed, I too have heard the "brave" comment, specifically about not needing to vet photos people tag of me on Facebook. But in any case, your point about intent and context is important. Retouching in a style blog is different than on a lit or lifestyle blog, and it makes sense for it to be that way. I try not to overthink the images of myself I put on here, but it remains in my mind that this is on some level a "beauty blog." My mild retouching of most of the images of myself that I put on here might be a defense against the inevitable troll coming on to tell me I don't look like "all that," you know?

    Erin, this provides another clue about the importance of context in airbrushing. Your book is all about transparency, so it makes sense to be transparent in that way too. And fair game on camel toe, I say!

    Virginia, it's such a weird place to be, isn't it? Intellectually knowing that every image we see is so highly manipulated, and yet knowing that those images we roll our eyes over have a very real pull on us. As you wrote in that post you linked to (always happy to have links here when they're relevant!), there's something primal about an image that we can't intellectualize away. And that's just for me, who knows this stuff firsthand--let alone someone who might not have seen it as up-close as I have. Hmmm.

    D, scope is another component of context, for sure. When this blog first launched I posted some photos of myself super dolled-up (that was the point; it was an experiment) and I would have to do that differently now because I have more readers and therefore I'm more self-conscious. And heh, I know from the head-turn "Photoshop"--I read when I was, like, nine that dipping your head down made you look better in photos, so every photo of me from ages 9-25 shows me doing this weird thing with my head. It doesn't sound like you're doing a strategic head placement for every photo (probably because you're not 9!), to which I say brava!

    Marsha, good point about age--I wonder if "digital natives" are more comfortable with photoshop because they see it as almost like a painting, instead of as a photograph? But that's interesting how a knowledge of retouching made you lose interest in looking at the images, and I see why. There's hardly a lack of beautiful images in the world; we read fashion magazines because we want to participate (or at least, that's why I read them, on the occasions that I do).

    Rebekah, I think that's another tunnel in the rabbit hole--the idea of "But it can't be 'shopped, see how real her knuckles look?" Almost like a "thou doth protest too much" sort of line of thinking. Maybe, like fantasy makeup, there's a truth that can be revealed in over-the-top retouching that is obscured when it's more "natural"? Hmmm.

    Courtney, it is fun, isn't it? I think that's part of the rabbit hole--that there's a sense of play when you're the creator of the images. I can see how it would be way easy for professional retouchers to go wild. (And now I totally wanna check out the liquify tool, ha!)

  11. Wow. This post speaks volumes of how society creates what we should perceive as beautiful.
    I would love for you guys to read my thoughts on the subject as well.

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