Has Retouching Gotten Out of Control? Professional Retouchers Dish About What's Getting Altered, What Isn't and Why It Happens

When you open a glossy magazine--whether it's a model in an editorial in Vogue, a CoverGirl, or a celebrity in US Weekly staring back at you--is what you're seeing real? How altered, airbrushed, Photoshopped and retouched are the people we see in ads and magazines? A lot of people are asking these questions lately. Recently, the New York Times published an article about a computer algorithm for figuring out how much an image has been retouched--and it seems to have touched a nerve. And where beauty ads are concerned--when retouching can actually mislead customers--steps are being taken to scale back on the post-production, or at least make plain that alterations took place. The UK released a series of advertising guidelines this past spring requiring cosmetics companies to disclose when they manipulate ads post-production. The US may start to do the same in the wake of the recent Taylor Swift CoverGirl mascara ad controversy. The National Advertising Division, a watchdog group, opted to ban the ads, prompting discussion that other cosmetics ads in the US could come under investigation. But retouching has been around for almost as long as photography has--itʼs not a new concept. So why all the recent fuss?
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When you open a glossy magazine--whether it's a model in an editorial in Vogue, a CoverGirl, or a celebrity in US Weekly staring back at you--is what you're seeing real? How altered, airbrushed, Photoshopped and retouched are the people we see in ads and magazines? A lot of people are asking these questions lately. Recently, the New York Times published an article about a computer algorithm for figuring out how much an image has been retouched--and it seems to have touched a nerve. And where beauty ads are concerned--when retouching can actually mislead customers--steps are being taken to scale back on the post-production, or at least make plain that alterations took place. The UK released a series of advertising guidelines this past spring requiring cosmetics companies to disclose when they manipulate ads post-production. The US may start to do the same in the wake of the recent Taylor Swift CoverGirl mascara ad controversy. The National Advertising Division, a watchdog group, opted to ban the ads, prompting discussion that other cosmetics ads in the US could come under investigation. But retouching has been around for almost as long as photography has--itʼs not a new concept. So why all the recent fuss?
Candice Swanepoel\'s shoulders look buff in an old Victoria\'s Secret catalog

Candice Swanepoel\'s shoulders look buff in an old Victoria\'s Secret catalog

When you open a glossy magazine--whether it's a model in an editorial in Vogue, a CoverGirl, or a celebrity in US Weekly staring back at you--is what you're seeing real? How altered, airbrushed, Photoshopped and retouched are the people we see in ads and magazines?

A lot of people are asking these questions lately. Recently, the New York Times published an article about a computer algorithm for figuring out how much an image has been retouched--and it seems to have touched a nerve.

And where beauty ads are concerned--when retouching can actually mislead customers--steps are being taken to scale back on the post-production, or at least make plain that alterations took place. The UK released a series of advertising guidelines this past spring requiring cosmetics companies to disclose when they manipulate ads post-production. The US may start to do the same in the wake of the recent Taylor Swift CoverGirl mascara ad controversy. The National Advertising Division, a watchdog group, opted to ban the ads, prompting discussion that other cosmetics ads in the US could come under investigation. The cosmetics company yanked the ads after the National Advertising Division, a watchdog group, challenged the claims made in the campaign, saying the use of photoshop made them potentially misleading to consumers. Since then, there's been speculation that other cosmetic ads in the US could come under similar investigation.

But retouching has been around for almost as long as photography has--itʼs not a new concept. So why all the recent fuss? Has it gotten out of control? Or has it just gotten sloppy (see: advent of the phrase "photoshop disaster" as spotting retouch jobs gone bad has become a sport on the internet)? We talked to a bunch of professional retouchers--all of whom agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity to protect their careers--but the insights they offered should clear up some misconceptions--and surprise you.

Taylor Swift\'s eyelashes aren\'t from Covergirl

Taylor Swift\'s eyelashes aren\'t from Covergirl

To What Degree are Images Being Retouched?

Itʼs tempting to blame retouchers for all the thin models we see in magazines, but a lot of them actually just look like that. “Many of these models really honestly do look like how they do in the pictures," said Michael*, a photographer and visual artist--who also has modeling agency experience. "The fashion industry literally scours the entire planet looking for models and only the really best of the best become top models. Is it really so hard for people to imagine that out of nearly 3.5 billion women in the world there are a few each year who seem to match every (western) ideal of beautiful?”

Zack, who works in the art department at a major magazine, added that "with the exception of maybe wrinkles being smoothed out, nearly all the retouching I've seen or done is to correct or change a choice made by another creative in the process....[like] I once had to change a subject's wig color--a choice by the stylist--to one that made the shot more aesthetically pleasing.” Andrew, a retoucher with 20 plus years of experience did admit that he was once asked to alter a shot of Kate Moss to “flatten out a little bit of a curve where her pants were.” He’s also lifted bust lines and smoothed butts.

Obviously it happens, but it sounds like girls’ bodies are not altered so as to be unrecognizable. Tamara, another professional retoucher with decades of experience, said of her work with health and fitness pubs, “[We aren’t] over-slimming. Maybe just pushing in a little bit here and there where the camera might have exaggerated a side, but there still is a camera and there still is lens distortion, so sometimes itʼs just correcting that.” Whatʼs also ironic is that sheʼs “fixing” a lot of bad plastic surgery to make it look more natural. Too-bright tooth laminates and ubiquitous fake-looking hair extensions are also common issues.

However, it’s not unheard of to move heads around or create limbs out of nothing. One retoucher said that Richard Avedon loved to move heads around on post-production shots of his models. Zack said that heʼs had to create arms and legs to improve poses, and transpose heads, in one case because the photographer cut a hat out of a shot. But he clarified, “Rarely is retouching done to alter reality in a way that someone couldn't have done so on set, in shot.”

Beauty ads is where things get dicey with heavy retouching. One of the retouchers I spoke with worked on an image of Rihanna for a cosmetics ad and by the end he said it looked like an “illustration,” even though the clients started out saying they wanted a “natural” look. Andrew worked on a makeover book by a very famous makeup artist and he said, “It was a book about how makeup can transform you, and you would not believe how much retouching we did. This is not makeup, this is retouching.” Tamara has done cosmetics ads for UK companies which allowed her to draw eyelashes on a model, but she couldn't digitally transfer them on. It seems like companies follow the letter of the law about cosmetic enhancement, but not the spirit. Wrinkles and “imperfections” are commonly removed from faces.

*All names have been changed to protect our sources

Adam Levine\'s torso went missing in Vogue Russia

Adam Levine\'s torso went missing in Vogue Russia

Have We, As, Consumers, Grown to Expect Flawless Airbrushed Images?

Retouchers are of the opinion that magazines and companies are giving people what they want to look at. Michael, the photographer, acknowledged that it’s a bad feedback cycle between “the public’s refusal to purchase products where models aren’t photoshopped and the backlash that comes when retouchers go too far.”

People [magazine] for a while swore they didn’t retouch but it’s BS. They have to. No one wants to see a big pimple. As much as they might say it, people do not want to see completely unretouched photos,” Andrew said. But there’s also a bit of psychological game-playing on the part of magazines.

Because magazine sales are so dismal lately, editors are trying to come up with special covers that will really appeal to someone standing in a check-out line for three minutes. “They’re playing around with background colors and faces. They’re tending to swap heads with bodies because they’re looking for an expression that shows the essence of the magazine,” said Tamara. But it’s often the job of the retouchers to keep these things in check so it doesn’t get out of hand. Most of the retouchers we spoke to shared stories of having to rein in editors and art directors from veering into “photoshop disaster” territory.

But ultimately is it our job as the consumers of these images to police what’s being put in front of our faces? Yes, says one of the retouchers. “I’m personally of the belief that the responsibility is on the consumers to be informed about how images are created, rather than limiting the creative [capability] of the companies,” Zack told us.

How is Beyonce holding that Armani perfume bottle?

How is Beyonce holding that Armani perfume bottle?

So What's With All the "Photoshop Disasters"?

Tamara thinks that new people coming into the industry donʼt have the right education. “Iʼm looking for a new intern and the younger kids today donʼt have the photographic background, the traditional photography print-making background, that I really feel is key to making a good retoucher," Tamara said. "And they donʼt have the classic fine art background like painting and drawing. Now theyʼre learning on computers and I think thatʼs why in the industry thereʼs a lot of bad retouching out there. Because they lack the formal skills.” Andrew agreed that a fine arts background and a photography background was key.

But Zack, a 20-something with a BFA in visual art and only about a year and a half of professional experience as a member of the editorial art department at a major magazine, takes exception to this. “Honestly, I don't think even the best retouchers have a background in photography and fine art," he said. "The best retouchers seem to be technicians and illustrators, the former who know the programs well and the latter who have fine drawing skills. At the end of the day, images are just pixels--colored dots that can be drawn, moved, and removed on a canvas.”

What everyone agreed on is that photographers generally don’t spend as much time on shoots as they used to. The prevailing attitude seems to be, as Andrew said, “‘Oh donʼt worry about that theyʼll fix it in post-[production].ʼ” Tamara said the stylists will just pin up a garment and not iron anything because they know it can be taken care of later.

Another common thread that emerged is the perception that despite the increased demand for retouching services, the pay scale for retouchers, and subsequently the quality of work, has taken a major hit since the 1990s and the advent of more accessible technology. “You used to be able to make six figures," Andrew said. "Now kids are making $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 and I donʼt even understand how people can make a living off that. It doesnʼt motivate you to do the best work. It motivates you just to get it done and get out of there.” James, Tamaraʼs business partner, agreed that the pay scale has suffered, saying, “Weʼre doing more and getting [paid] half of what we used to.” Tamara also pointed to the proliferation of online images as a factor. Sheʼs working with magazines on their iPad projects, and is being given half the budget that she gets for magazine work.