In Defense of Photoshop: Why Retouching Isn’t As Evil As Everyone Thinks

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Gil Elvgren's fantasy pin-up girls weren't that different from today's retouched women (like the Photoshopped Ann Taylor model at left and center). Photo: Courtesy of Ann Taylor (left, center); "Beautiful Lady" illustration courtesy of Gil Elvgren/K. Meisel Gallery

Is anyone else weary of the media’s hunt for retouched images to ridicule? A little more than a week ago, blogs were abuzz over unretouched photos of Jennifer Aniston, outtakes from a 2006 cover shoot for British Harper’s Bazaar, in which the ever-tan actress looked less sun-kissed than sun-abused, a mere human not yet buffed to a celebrity gloss. Two weeks earlier, the pressing issue was whether Jessica Simpson — whose career has lately consisted of public proclamations of her newfound détente with her zaftig figure — was airbrushed to slimness on the September cover of Lucky. Speculation also raged over Katy Perry; did she receive similar digital liposuction at the hands of Rolling Stone? And let’s not forget Ann Taylor’s recent Photoshop debacles: On more than one occasion, images that appeared on the company’s website were of such bizarrely inhuman proportions that the models’ legs looked like Pixie Stix, and their waists appeared only slightly larger than their arms. “[W]e agree our retouching has been overzealous … ”a spokesperson from Ann Taylor replied, after the website Jezebel slammed the aberrant images.

The issue, many critics of Photoshopping claim, is one of social ethics and emotional sensitivity. Retouched photos set an unrealistic bar for suggestible young girls, and therefore cry out to be exposed. Jezebel editor-in-chief Jessica Coen recently argued that the site’s relentless attention to modified photos is motivated by the need to defend impressionable minds: "[E]very day a young woman somewhere sees one of these overly polished pictures for the first time … and has no idea that they're not real ... And maybe she doesn't have someone in her life to point out that this is complete and utter bullshit." (Though it seems improbable that this young woman with no inkling that fashion magazines are fake is also aware of and has access to Jezebel.) In France, legislators have pushed for a law that would require a disclaimer for any digitally enhanced photograph. The Australian government recently announced plans for a similar footnoting policy, and Britain’s equalities minister Lynne Featherstone called for a “Kitemark,” or warning label of sorts — a proposal that has impelled hundreds of Girl Guides (U.K.’s Girl Scouts) to sign a petition in support. "I am very keen that children and young women should be informed about airbrushing, so they don't fall victim to looking at an image and thinking that anyone can have a twelve-inch waist. It is so not possible," Featherstone has said.

Retouched images also spike page views, and not because of an attentive desire on the part of readers to protect vulnerable teens. The endless cavalcade of before-and-after shots is an outgrowth of the voyeurism, gossipmongering, and schadenfreude that fuel our celebrity industrial complex. People want to see actresses in all their wrinkled, full-figured glory for the same reason they want to purchase tabloids replete with pictures of A-list love handles. They want assurance that stars are just like us, which is to say imperfect. “It's making me less self-conscious about the lines on my own forehead, between my eyes, around my mouth,” wrote a Jezebel commentator, buoyed up by the subpar Aniston images. Another exclaimed: “Aha! It now seems that sexy-messy-sea-hair is also all smoke and mirrors. Phew. Now my own sea-hair seems a little less like a disastrous personal affliction.” And so, because human nature dictates that what inquiring minds really want to know is that stars are as unprepossessing as their fans, magazines and websites continue to traffic in these photos.

But how many adult women actually take the images in fashion magazines — artificial as they are, feats of makeup and lighting and camera angles, even without retouching — at face value? “Our readers are not idiots,” Christine Leiritz, editor of French Marie Claire, told the New York Times last year, “especially when they see those celebrities who are 50 and look 23.” Most of us who read fashion magazines don’t feel we’re confronting reality when we see a photograph of a grown woman with preteen thighs. (We certainly see enough countervailing tabloid shots to know exactly what celebrity thighs look like.) If such photos enrage us, and often they do, it’s not because they damage our self-esteem, nor — let’s be honest — because we’re constantly fretting, like some earnest psychologist or crusading politician, about the emotional repercussions for adolescent girls. Our interest in altered images is not purely moral; it’s also aesthetic. We believe that a picture should convey, “objectively,” without undue intervention, what the lens originally captured. But these days, come to a fashion, consumer, or celebrity magazine with this quaint puritanical notion in mind, and you’re bound to be disappointed: Many contemporary images are illustrations masquerading as photographs, cartoons composed with a computer rather than a pen.

What’s galling is the patent disingenuousness of the whole murky enterprise. Only when an image has been egregiously botched — as with that Ralph Lauren ad last year, in which model Filippa Hamilton resembled a shrunken apple-head doll, her face far too ample for her emaciated body — is there any admission, often in the form of a suspiciously fulsome apology, that a blatantly renovated image is not au naturel. Magazines and advertisers want it both ways: They want the credibility afforded by seemingly documentary photographs, but they also want the sexy, buzzy aura of a stylized illustration. They want to have their photo, so to speak, and Photoshop it, too.

And why shouldn’t they? The age-old game of glamour creation, from Renaissance portraiture to Playboy centerfolds, has always been one of frank enhancement. Retouched pictures simply claim the traditional prerogatives of illustrations: to exaggerate, accentuate, and improve upon their subjects — basically, to lie. For much of the last century, models and movie stars in fashion magazines and advertisements were often rendered as drawings or paintings. In The Girl on the Magazine Cover, journalism professor Carolyn Kitch explains that magazines were “dealing in ideals rather than reality,” and the vaguer contours of an illustration “could represent both a specific type of female beauty,” as well as more general “model attributes,” like “youth, innocence, sophistication, modernity, upward mobility,” etc. Of course, illustrations also appealed to their vain subjects, who were usually portrayed as idealized versions of themselves. In the ads of illustrator Gil Elvgren, for example, the women are libidinous fantasies — a busty girl-next-door seductively rides a carousel to sell Coca-Cola; another, for whom busty is an understatement, shills for a Certa mattress. His pinups were even more outlandish in their homogenized well-endowedness. Not surprisingly, Hollywood starlets were eager for Elvgren to elevate them with his magic paintbrush. Similarly, Alberto Vargas, the famous creator of Esquire’s Vargas girl and numerous Playboy illustrations, was favored by many Golden Age movie stars (Betty Grable Jane Russell, Ava Gardner) of his day. The melon-breasted, small-waisted sameness of his images invented something of a new pulp genre: physiological science fiction.

Much like our latter-day Photoshop humanoids, the artwork of Elvgren, Vargas, and their peers rely on elements of caricature, fixating on erotic body parts, the breasts and hips, as well as on secondary sexual characteristics — big eyes, smooth skin, all the alluring physical accessories. These illustrations obviously amplified and emended the actual women who modeled for them. Were they, however, photographs that had been digitally manipulated, their distortions would rankle and disconcert. Looking at them, one can’t help wonder why we resist accepting, or even celebrating, a retouched photo for what it is: an open fiction, a candid fantasy. If we could ditch the idea that these images bear any resemblance to reality, viewers might not feel conned or played for fools.

Seen and appreciated for what they are, magazine images might gain in artistic vibrancy what they lose in everyday authority. The truth is that most retouched photos fail as aesthetic objects, not because they’re deceptive, but because they’re timid, feeble, and inhibited. Constrained by their origins as photographs, they stop short of embracing full stylization. They force themselves to walk a very fine line: romanticize without being preposterous, improve upon nature without grossly misrepresenting a famous physique with which viewers are familiar. When an apparently hipless Demi Moore graced the cover of W last year, readers blanched. Likewise when Gwyneth’s Paltrow’s head appeared oddly detached from her body on the May 2008 cover of Vogue, giving her an upsetting alien-from-outer-space vibe. What were the editors thinking? That we wouldn’t notice? And yet perversely, artificial as these images are, they’re actually not artificial enough. It would be better, perhaps, if art directors just went all the way, publishing, without apologies, pictures of incarnate Betty Boops or Jessica Rabbits. Too many magazine images nowadays are neither fish nor fowl, neither photographs of integrity nor illustrations of potency. They’re weird in-between creatures, annoying and unsettling.

It’s unlikely that magazines will take up overt illustration again anytime soon. And it’s even less likely that Hollywood, given its pathological obsession with youth and its despotic publicity apparatus, will deny itself the option of touch-ups. So let’s get real ourselves, as viewers. Look around. We know perfectly well what women look like. We know when images are spurious — no paternalistic formal disclaimer needed. Let’s cope with our image-drenched environment (by some counts, 3,000 ads accost us every day) by teaching young women (and men) to cultivate the same critical skills we urge them to exercise when reading, a more complex task than pointing gleeful fingers at graphic misdemeanors. The problem isn’t altered photographs; it’s our failure to alter our expectations of them.