Why Is Everyone So Touchy About Photo Retouching? Another Anonymous Retoucher Speaks Out

Retouching continues to be a topic of debate and a catalyst for consumer backlash now more than ever. From a 14-year-old girl mounting a campaign to
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Retouching continues to be a topic of debate and a catalyst for consumer backlash now more than ever. From a 14-year-old girl mounting a campaign to
An artsy image from Vogue Portugal, via Fashion Gone Rogue (Shot by: Enric Galceran)

An artsy image from Vogue Portugal, via Fashion Gone Rogue (Shot by: Enric Galceran)

Retouching continues to be a topic of debate and a catalyst for consumer backlash now more than ever. From a 14-year-old girl mounting a campaign to get Seventeen and Teen Vogue to show "real" unaltered images of teenagers to limbs getting chopped off models right and left, those fantasy images we've been looking at for years are under closer scrutiny lately.

You can't escape the fact that retouchers--those mysterious, behind-the-scenes gurus who erase zits and add tits--have their hands all over every single image we see these days, whether it's a fashion editorial or a beauty ad. And their work very often makes the image memorable, be it good or bad. But they aren't usually credited in an editorial along with the stylist and photographer, and they don't even want to discuss their work unless it's under a veil of anonymity. On Friday BuzzFeed Shift posted a great tell-all written by a retoucher and, well, people were touchy about it. A sampling of comments from our readers after we posted an excerpt:

Tedrien Nicholas: Interesting. But also, known by anyone with half a brain. However, it is great for a retoucher to talk about this.

Danielle Darwin: Surprising? No. Next.

No one in this day and age will claim to be surprised that photoshopping is rampant, so why can't/won't retouchers and the industry talk about it more openly? What exactly happens in that mysterious post-production space, and why do things (or limbs) seem to be going awry with greater frequency?

With the debate over retouching getting louder, our own anonymous retoucher, who has years of commercial and high fashion experience, chimed in to enlighten us about why retouchers prefer to stay undercover (hint: so the photographer can get the credit) and why Photoshop fails are happening with greater frequency.

An ad deemed 'too misleading' by the UK due to alterations made to Rachel Weisz's complexion

An ad deemed 'too misleading' by the UK due to alterations made to Rachel Weisz's complexion

So why don't retouchers talk more openly? While de rigeur non-disclosure agreements are one obvious reason, there are others that are harder to pin down.

The photographers want to keep control:

Retouching isn't just about pimple removal and shaping, it's also about creating a certain look for the photographer. What we receive from photographers (even the best) looks pretty ordinary and similar to what you get from your standard digital camera, just with far better lighting, better detail, and of course high fashion made-up models in couture. High end retouching gives a "look" to all of these editorials and fashion campaigns. Think of high-end retouchers as Instagram on an expert level; they apply a look and vibe that says something, which can be edgy, commercial, high-fashion, etc. Photographers want people to continue to believe that the images that are seen in print came straight from the memory card; on the contrary, they look FAR DIFFERENT.

So do retouchers ever question clients or photographers about the extent of retouching that's being done? Yup, and they don't often have a choice in the matter.

Doutzen Kroes has two legs in real life, but not in Vogue China.

Doutzen Kroes has two legs in real life, but not in Vogue China.

Photographers appreciate the input and tend to have a lighter hand, but that's not so with other clients:

I have many many times asked a photographer/editor/creative director/client to rethink what they are asking, usually simply worded as "Hmm... Really? Are you sure? I'm worried she/he/it will start to look too fake." The most common answer is "Hmm, maybe you're right but try it as an option and let's see how it looks." And usually, it's the option that's chosen. With some photographers, it's never, or if you question it, they tend to agree. With commercial clients, it's not as easy to question them but it does happen. There have been a couple of times when the owner or boss of the retouching company has called the client to say they think it looks/will look too far but that's rare.

So why are there so many so-called photoshop disasters these days?

A big problem is when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. When you have the creative director, three art directors, the copy writer, the account manager, the production manager, the retouchers, the photographer, and the make-up/hair company each voicing their opinion on things that need to be tweaked (not to mention politics in getting a word in), then you have a recipe for The Perfect (Overretouched) Storm where every sign of imperfection is retouched.

But retouching is sometimes necessary. Because of the (eww) "eye gunk:"

Retouching is sometimes necessary. Today's cameras are incredibly sharp and if you look at the raw files for up-close beauty images, you'd be shocked at the detail. Eye gunk, eye veins, peach fuzz, ingrown hairs, it's basically taking one of those magnification mirrors to someone's face. You wouldn't normally see this stuff if you are standing two feet from someone. It's when it goes too far that it's a problem.

There are so many arguments that can be made for and against photoshopping: A fashion editorial is supposed to be artistic, so is a little photoshopping in of a special effect OK? The retoucher told us, "I feel like people know [retouching] exists but they also, unfortunately, secretly want the fantasy to exist, otherwise they'd have nothing to aspire to." Which is where the beauty companies get into trouble--making us aspire to eyelashes that no mascara could ever provide.

There's obviously no right answer, but it's an important question to keep asking.