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Shooting behind-the-scenes video for Love magazine’s eighteenth issue, model and videographer Belle Smith witnessed a memorable moment. “I was on set with French fashion photographer Patrick DeMarchelier, and he was photographing supermodel Ashley Graham,” says Smith. As usual, they had a little station set up to immediately choose and retouch the best shots—smooth a backside, tweak a thigh, that sort of thing. But this time, in the most gorgeous shot of Ashley, there was a tummy fold showing. The question was: Do we retouch that or not? And Patrick said, ‘It’s beautiful. Leave it. That’s my favorite part of the photo.’”

That Love chose to leave amply figured Graham’s folds alone is one more petal opened in the blooming “love-yourself-the-way-you-are” body-positive movement. But it’s still not the norm. And with no formalized guidelines, questions around retouching are more plentiful than tummy pleats.

“How much is too much retouching?” is a Pandora’s box of a question. Ask, and more questions emerge. Should we set any limits? What’s the science on the viewer impact of retouching? What about creative freedom? No one wants to see the health and well-being of America’s women and youth further damaged by exposure to idealized, unrealistic imagery created by the abuse of image-editing software. But the huge number of industries involved and the artistry of post processing are powerful deterrents to setting rules around what—or how much—happens to a photo between the shutter click and the presentation of the image.

Currently, there is no clear definition of—or overarching guideline around—retouching. “Retouching really umbrellas everything done in post-production of a photograph, before printing,” says Rebecca Manson, high-end photographic retoucher and owner of New York– and Los Angeles–based studio The Post Office. “That can mean anything from color grading to cleaning blemishes to complete fantasy advertising stuff, like making a Toyota come out of a plume of smoke,” says Manson.

Media outlets each set their own parameters around how much a photo can or can’t be altered depending on what type of photo it is (news, portrait, art in an editorial feature, etc.) and where it is being shown. “As a news organization, the basic guideline is: Don’t make any changes that affect the image as a true representation of a person,” says Clinton Cargill, director of photography for Bloomberg Businessweek. “But that being said, anything that goes to print gets retouched. Photos have to be set to the proper color profiles that work with our system. And then there are a ton of little impermanent things, like flyaway hairs or a blemish that you may touch as a courtesy.

“But even doing that is a slippery slope,” Cargill continues. “Because the common practices in the industry skew so much in the direction of beautifying, if you don’t make those moves—i.e., choosing not to fix a blemish—it actually stands out as being a choice to portray someone in a negative way. So it’s always a tough question.”

Meanwhile, ad agencies make their determinations about post processing based on the story being told with each photo and the demographic targeted with each campaign. Because each campaign is different, these decisions vary widely. Ad imagery may be anchored stylistically in gritty reality or soar in surreal fantasy. The Federal Trade Commission’s truth in advertising squadron only steps in to police things “if the retouching materially misrepresents the product’s performance,” says media liaison Mitchell Katz, speaking for the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices. “Examples would include doctoring ‘before and after’ photos to make it look like the person lost more weight, developed better muscles [and] had less acne … than the product actually achieved,” says Katz.

It’s all quite subjective. And as Manson points out, the artistry inherent in skilled post processing has always been integral to the production of a beautiful photograph: “Retouching is not new; it has been a big part of almost every famous photograph you have ever looked at. Whether it be a moonlit landscape, James Dean walking down a New York City street, the Hindenburg disaster or a portrait shot of Katharine Hepburn, retouching has been a huge part of photography and should not be dismissed or done away with. As Ansel Adams once said, ‘The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.’ We do, however need some moral compass somewhere when retouching is used in certain industries.”

For New York magazine’s fall fashion portfolio, photographer Holly Andres and stylists Ragen Fykes and Sheri Mendes traveled the United States, capturing diverse, nonmodel American women wearing designer clothing. In the left shot, featuring geological-engineering graduate student Alexis Archambault on a horse, Andres did light retouching to remove a clip holding Archambault’s dress and some spots on the horse, as seen in the “before” image (right). Holly Andres, photographer; Rebecca Ramsey, art director; Ragen Fykes/Sheri Mendes, stylists; Alexis Archambault, model; New York, client.

To Manson’s point, the democratization of Photoshop combined with the magic of digital image capture led to decades of experimentation—and some extreme and unwise manipulation, sloppy retouching, and eventually the Photoshop bashing that has given the art of retouching an underservedly bad name. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s definition for the verb photoshop is “to alter a digital image with Photoshop software or other image-editing software especially in a way that distorts reality (as for deliberately deceptive purposes.)” The company pins the first-known uses of the word to 1992, just a few years after the program was officially released in 1990.

“This is so unfortunate,” says Manson. “Back before Photoshop was so readily available, it just wasn’t feasible to retouch much. Good photographers knew how to light and pose their subjects to make the most of what was available—it was a part of being a good, experienced photographer. But the agencies and magazines need to save money as much as anyone these days, which is why cheaper, less-experienced photographers and models are brought in and gaps in the art of simply shooting a good shot disappear. Mistakes are then fixed with Photoshop.”

Thankfully, most of the really “bad” stuff—overtly body sculpting photos to augment or shrink shapes toward a cultural ideal of feminine beauty or masculine strength—has fallen out of favor across the industry. “I do think pure body manipulation and airbrushing is going more and more out of trend,” says Linn Edwards, creative director and cofounder of Feather Creative in New York City. “Nobody wants to be the last company that is known for over-retouching or making models look like aliens.”

Agencies and editors of all stripes are generally asking for greater diversity in body type, skin color and ethnicity—using lighter retouching overall. “Thankfully, nobody’s asking retouchers to replace eyes, move heads from one body to another or lighten skin colors anymore.” says Karin Rose, longtime creative director for leading agencies such as DDB Chicago and now an advertising consultant.

“Consumers are too damn smart these days to allow the advertising industry to do something that’s obviously fake or overmanipulated,” says Kurt Fries, chief creative officer at mcgarrybowen in Chicago. “We do our best to be honest and natural in our representation of bodies, and if an ad violates that, then consumers are going to call you on it.”

In fact, some brands—such as Aerie and Target—have been making statements that their photos are “unretouched” in support of the body-positivity cause and because the stance builds brand loyalty with younger buyers. But making such claims with no real industry-wide guidelines on what unretouched actually means is problematic. This fact, along with litigation in Europe—such as a law launched in October 2017 in France (L2133-2) that requires a “retouched” label on any ads showing models where their figures have been altered—raise concerns about the potential for the legal status of retouching in the United States.

These concerns were alarm bells for Sarah Krasley, founder and principal of the New York City–based design and management services firm Unreasonable Women. Early in Krasley’s work life, during a time when the energy industry used the term renewable energy haphazardly, Krasley ended up on the team that worked on the certification standard that cleared up the term’s definition. When Krasley sought guidance about retouching photos for her recently launched X Swimwear line of women’s custom swimsuits and found little to go by, her experience helping the energy industry frame definitions came to mind.

In January 2017, Krasley formed the Retouchers Accord, a “social impact project” to bring retouchers, photo editors, graphic designers, software toolmakers and brand managers together under a voluntary five-part pledge to increase authenticity in the images seen in media and advertising. “Even though there is a move in the industry toward less-retouched imagery, there needed to be something like the Accord to get people from all vantage points dialoguing about this, and attempting to codify language around retouching.” says Krasley. “An oath seemed a good place to start.” Among the benefits? Members in the Accord are sharing best practices for more thoughtful retouching techniques among themselves and figuring out how to broach the subject of more empathetic retouching with clients.

For the New York Times Magazine’s cover of Serena Williams (left), which references Irving Penn’s portrait of Miles Davis, retoucher Rebecca Manson had to navigate its strict retouching rules while using burning and dodging to lessen the harsh lighting on the athlete’s face. Christopher Griffith, photographer; Rebecca Manson, retoucher; Sarah Schussheim, stylist; Johnnie Sapong, hair stylist; Fiona Stiles, makeup artist; The New York Times, client. In this photo illustration for clothier Hickey Freeman (right), Manson worked with Griffith to correct and compile multiple shots into a finished piece. Christopher Griffith, photographer; Rebecca Manson, retoucher; Out There, ad agency; Hickey Freeman, client.

Catherine Duffy, art director for Dafne, a Brooklyn, New York–based partnership that specializes in creating visuals for emerging companies, says those talks are going well. “As content makers, we’ve been very upfront with our potential clients that we are not interested in showing women in a flawless way in our photography, but are more interested in realistic and diverse representation,” she says.

Discussions about the preservation of creative freedom are also necessary. Portland, Oregon–based fine art and commercial photographer Holly Andres, who photographed “The 43-Day Fashion Shoot” for New York magazine’s Fall Fashion issue, traveled 8,000 miles in 43 days for the feature, shooting portraits of women across the country. Andres, who found the women for each location shoot as she went, says she felt the project was really encouraging. “It’s a really pivotal time for women. Doing a shoot like this felt like a move forward for the industry, even with some limitations.”

Andres used very light retouching on faces and complexions, but clarifies that she is opposed to placing limits and rules around retouching. “I’m an artist. Typically when I create a photograph, I see an image in my mind, and everything I do with the process is an aim to create that image I see in my head. I’ve never perceived a camera as an agent of truth; it’s a tool. Editing software is a toolbox. I just feel it’s really limiting to ask artists to make restrictions around the use of those tools.”

“You can’t legislate aesthetics,” says internationally renowned photographer and artist Jill Greenberg. Rather, she explains, “You have to educate the public about what goes into the fabrication of a hero image. It is all artificial. Nothing is real. All images lie. It might as well be a painting. Would you get mad at a painting? I think these laws [around retouching] are backwards and impossible.”

Thus far, in the United States, says Christopher Smith, president of the American Graphics Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, and coauthor of Adobe Creative Cloud Design Tools All-In-One For Dummies, “the only laws pertaining specifically to photo retouching that have been introduced in the House never made it out of committee and so haven’t gone to the full House or Senate.”

In Europe, laws around retouching that have been set in place were designed to protect fashion models and discourage the digital sculpting that creates seemingly real, yet unattainable shapes that cause young people to feel badly about themselves. Science has linked the viewing of overly thin models with the development of eating disorders. But studies around how the mind perceives and reacts to retouched images are limited.  “There is a surprising lack of research on this,” says Sophie Nightingale, a psychology PhD candidate at the University of Warwick in England.

To make a first dent, Nightingale conducted studies examining people’s ability to detect whether a photo had been retouched by asking test participants to look at two versions of the same photo—one manipulated, one not. Her recently published findings show that “people had an extremely limited ability to detect if a photo had been manipulated.” And further, “even when people were able to tell that a photo had been manipulated, the majority couldn’t figure out what in specific had been changed.”

“We don’t know at this stage why the visual systems in the brain are not particularly good at spotting manipulations,” says Nightingale. “There definitely needs to be more research done.”

In this photograph for jewelry brand OTEM (left), Dafne, a Brooklyn studio formed by art director Catherine Duffy and photographer Frances F. Denny, removed impressions from the models’ wrists that had been caused by testing different combinations of cuffs and bangles. Dafne, photography; OTEM, client. Dafne only made adjustments to the color and tone of this photograph for the fragrance Grey Rose (right). Dafne, photography; Grey Rose, client.

There are many related questions yet to be answered. For example, with the majority of images posted on social media being filtered, edited or retouched in some way—and with Americans spending at least eleven hours a day viewing these images—how can one cleanly separate the reaction to retouched imagery in commercial photography from the reaction to edited social media imagery? What is the overall impact that so much altered reality has on the brain?

There is also the question of control. The standard practice of signing one’s say away when receiving payment for appearing in a photograph stands in stark contrast to the control that private citizens have to alter—or not alter—images they post on social media. Eliza Mozer, a recent photography graduate from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, spent several years photo-documenting her journey toward self-actualization and her rejection of centuries of female subjugation to the male gaze in art in a series of unretouched self-portraits via her public Instagram page.

“My goal in publicly posting unretouched images of my body was to break the narrative of feminine form as a passive object in art and dismantle the power dynamics that lie within the heteropatriarchal gaze structure we live under,” says Mozer. “I want consumers to be present and active participants in the act of viewing, rather than voyeurs. I chose to share this exploration publicly in the hopes that my journey toward unconditional acceptance of myself would empower others to reclaim their bodies as their own.” Reaction to the images has been really polarized, with some people publicly commenting, “You are disgusting! How can you post these?” And at the other extreme: “Thank you. You’ve inspired me to learn how to love myself.”

“I recently received private messages from a sixteen-year-old girl who begged me to tell her how I learned to love my body, so that she could stop hating her own,” Mozer adds.

But when Mozer was paid to pose nude for New York photographer Ryan McGinley, she was surprised to find that the finished work was retouched to smooth thighs and buttocks. “My goal in posing for McGinley was the same as with my own work,” she says. “I was surprised that he retouched the photos, because I feel like that negated my purpose: It’s not about blind self-love for me. It’s about seeing my body and understanding the things that make me different from the next person. These differences are negated as flaws in mainstream culture. But they are part of what makes me ‘me.’ Unconditional love is unconditional acceptance.”

This gulf between control and subjugation may lessen as more high-profile individuals speak out against unwarranted retouching. Efforts to teach the general public—especially younger, more vulnerable members of society—to be more skeptical of media images and to know that almost all commercial imagery they see has been edited can help lessen blind faith in the veracity of photos. But even with education, when a person scrolls through a photo feed, the “brain tends to take away the meaning of the ‘story’ a photo presents first, rather than kicking into skeptic mode [‘Is this real or fake?’ ‘Is her thigh really that perfect, or did they smooth out all the cellulite?’],” says Nightingale.

“I see this all the time in my classes,” says Susan Kae Grant, Dallas-based fine art photographer, longtime educator and 2016 Cornaro Professor at Texas Woman’s University. “I’ll show a classroom full of photo students an image that has been extremely retouched—and these are all well-trained individuals—and they still think it’s real and believe the narrative.”

For now, Krasley and supporters of the aims of the Retouchers Accord hope that more of the industry will join in the dialogue and voluntarily become more transparent about their post-processing policies and more empathetic and diverse in their photographic portrayal of the human form.

“An oath to promote healthy body imagery has to start much earlier than the final retouching,” says Rose. “It needs to start with brands representing their market realistically. While men have always been shown in different shapes and sizes, there is still a driving force that believes one women can represent us all. Whatever we can do to chip away at that notion is progress.”

“I really do think having more dialogue around this is a good idea, especially specific to representation of the body,” says Bloomberg Businessweek’s Cargill. “Unrealistic ideals of beauty have a pernicious effect on all of us … but you definitely don’t want to put limits on creativity and freedom of expression, so developing any kind of standard is going to be difficult.”

In addition to talks that enable differing industry perspectives to come to light, Manson suggests one measure that could help eliminate occurrences of extreme or abusive image-editing: If an image is retouched, credit the retoucher, the creatives and the photographers by name. Historically, this has rarely happened. “[Crediting] is not the same as being forced to say the image is retouched [through a labeling law.] It would also bring some accountability to the people doing the work, lessening the likelihood of really bad retouching being published, and in the case of excellent work, would give due credit,” she concludes. ca

Monica Kass Rogers (monicakassrogers.com) writes and photographs from her home base in Evanston, Illinois.


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