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Docu-Glam—Part I: Fact vs. Make-Believe in the Age of Photoshop

Who's kidding whom? Make-up IS retouching!

For all the commotion about how digital photo retouching (“photoshopping”) deceives the eye and causes low self-esteem among women and teen girls, in fact it is only the last of countless “retouches” Western women apply to themselves. Daily, monthly, or permanent alterations to a woman’s face and body shape are tolerated and even encouraged in our society. For example, how many graying women under 65 DON’T color their hair? Even boob jobs and face lifts are socially acceptable, provided they are not blatant or (God forbid!) lopsided! Yet we feel betrayed the minute a photo is manipulated, as though we must draw a moral line somewhere. The message is: retouch your body all you like, but photos should remain an inviolable documentation of reality. What’s behind such a paradox?

Our desire to look good makes us responsible, collectively, for the super-perfect images in our media.

Deep down, we all want to look good to others. This goal shapes our visual world, determines our purchases and, ultimately, dictates the routines we apply to our own appearance. Our cultural standard is perfection, from the foods we eat…to the sparkling shine of floors…to manicured suburban lawns…to the appearance of our own bodies. Social media like FaceBook and YouTube just increase our need to look good so we can attract “friends” and get our share of “views.”

We put tremendous pressure on science and technology to serve up an ideal world, free of pain, disease, disfigurement, and defiant of death. Yet reality is more likely to be blotchy, crooked, or a downright calamitous mess. The computer-manipulated photo becomes a way to conceal the truth, to rehabilitate our dashed ideals and reassure us that we live in the best time in history and the greatest empire in the world. In this context, it’s preposterous to expect that imaging technology — along with moral outrage — would stay frozen in the last century, and that we should only see raw, documentary-style photos in our fashion magazines, packaging, or ads. We NEED these perfect, idealized photos to counterbalance pictures of the dreadful truth of what we have done to our planet through carelessness, greed, and ignorance.

Iconic Celebrity Photos

Before Photoshop, there was lighting, staging, and airbrusing to idealize a star's looks.
(L to R) Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Diana Ross, Gong Li.

Catastrophic Ugliness

Where Photoshop fails to help: the catastrophic ugliness of certain human activities cannot be easily covered up.
(L to R) Clear-cut forests, toxic leak from a nuclear meltdown, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, oil spill entrapping a bird.

I would go so far as to argue that a Western woman’s freedom to manipulate her appearance is a political statement. While our sisters in the Muslim world must suppress their looks under a burqa, our obsession with appearances becomes all the more exaggerated, liberating, and futuristic. Ads for personal care products emphasize their use of the latest technologies to enhance appearance. Smiling prettily, being photographed at our best, or striking an alluring pose for the camera is both our right and our reward for the efforts we make toward improving our image.

Muslim woman in burqa.

Muslim women who don't adhere to strict Islamic dress code have been excoriated, chastened, beaten, and killed.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in celebrity images. To support our populist form of royalty, we expect them to be perfect and super-human, the likenesses of goddesses. With today’s instant reproductions, media marketing blitzes, and digital chit-chat, they appear everywhere. Certain of these pictures are destined to achieve immortal status. Littered across the web, they are copied and parodied alongside famous historical artworks like the Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s Venus, or The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Our job as photo retouchers is to create the most fantastic, powerful, and memorable images of women (and men) the world has ever seen — or at least to conjure up the ILLUSION that these ideals exist!

It’s important to remember that retouching comes after countless contrivances of body, face, and hair styling, to say nothing of lights, filters, and other photographic tricks and tools. To put photoshopping in context, let’s consider what happens long before the camera’s click. The chart below shows various tools and technologies with which most women (and men) improve, change, or manipulate their physical appearance, from rudimentary grooming such as hair cuts and shaving, to fleeting enhancements like make-up, to radical procedures like lifts and tucks, implants, and laser treatments. While basic grooming is just downright practical, very few people — except the homeless, rebel-hippie-artist-types, and members of certain religious sects — do NOTHING whatsoever to touch up their looks. Most of us make some changes to our appearance, and take for granted that others do too. Where we draw the line can differ greatly from one person to another. Yet the popular consensus is that photoshopping is going too far.

If you cut your hair, clip your nails, or shave, you are in effect “retouching” your appearance, however subtly.
This chart shows various degrees of alterations made to the body, to which digital photo manipulation is an inevitable successor.

When photos are obviously doctored and can no longer be relied upon as truthful, people get upset. On the other hand, truthful photos — particularly those that document the harsh, ugly realities of life — tend to be disturbing. We find them shocking and hard to look at, much less stomach. Such photos can even border on the obscene, and only sick or morbid people would take pleasure in looking at them. Yet there they are in the daily news, popping up in searches unless we set up content filters.

We all know the cruelties of Nature and the consequences of our tampering with it, whether we see the pictures or not. This knowledge creates our unconscious yearning for that which is pure, perfect, and beautiful. The result is that we have collectively created the iconic, retouched images of our super stars. Each one of us inadvertently pressures image makers to fix whatever is ugly, ordinary, or merely aging. Let me demonstrate how this phenomenon works.

Madonna in the 80s

The iconic Madonna, as we imagine her.

Look at Madonna, the 80’s version — saucy, sexy, iconoclastic — the way we remember, and more important, imagine her to be. Here, imagination trumps remembering since we never knew Madonna personally. We likely saw so many images and video of her, or memorized so many of her songs, that we feel as if we knew her. In fact, most of us never saw her face to face, except perhaps as a distant figure in a live concert. The imagined Madonna is the one who lives forever in our minds: larger than life, the Goddess of Post-Modernism. We forget that our “relationship” with such a celebrity is mediated through the media, and we know of her only through the media. Meanwhile, the archetypal Madonna has already outlived the real, human Madonna. This true and real Madonna has become someone we can no longer actually “see.”

Unretouched Madonna in 2010.

The real Madonna, unretouched, at 50-something.

When I first saw the image at left, I felt a shock similar to the time I discovered my childhood home had been demolished and replaced by an imposter. It was like a bad dream with the front door missing, my bedroom on a different floor, and nothing as I remembered it! Similarly, when I saw this factual Madonna, I felt oddly affronted. My mind automatically compared each detail of her face with my imagined Madonna, and the former came up wrong: the sagging chin, the wrinkles, the puffiness just didn’t fit the internalized image.


Yet there is nothing at all wrong about the real Madonna of today! In fact, if I had never seen the iconic 80’s Madonna, and only today saw this photo of an unknown woman in her early fifties, I would think, “What a striking woman! Her eyes are powerful, mesmerizing. Who IS she?” Of course, I could only think such thoughts after consciously putting out of my mind all preconceptions of beauty, feminine power, and most especially, my internalized ideal Madonna. Try it yourself. It’s amazing to discover how blind we have become and how insistent we are on our ideas of the way people should look.

Digitally altered Madonna, before and after.

The real versus iconic Madonna. The retouching at right is no longer photo-realistic, but works because we have internalized an ideal Madonna of the past.

Our culture does not want realistic-looking female celebrities. They should be young and smooth, without a hair out of place. If a model has cellulite and blotchy skin, no one wants to see it, except the gossips. We want to buy the illusion that she is the apex of her kind of woman: perfect, immortal, ideal. Similarly, when a celebrity dies, the media don’t publish a photo of the person old or dead, but the younger, iconic one we adore. Consciously or unconsciously, we want to fantasize a life of incomparable beauty, fame, and adoration, and we collectively create, desire, and use idealized images as a starting point.

It’s not just in images, though, that we won’t tolerate imperfection. In the supermarket no one buys the bruised apple, the sprouted potato, the wrinkled onion, or the pale strawberries. Bruises and blemishes, discoloration and misshapen forms are unacceptable all around. Our cultural norm is the shrink-wrapped pristine package as equally as it is the image of a model who hasn’t passed her Best-Before date.

Debenhams Retouched

An ad for Debenhams, a British department store, unretouched (left) and retouched (right).

Demi Moore with porcelain skin.

Demi Moore, retouched with the “porcelain skin” look (left), and unretouched (right).
Problem is: unretouched, she is just the “girl next door,” whereas retouched, she is an icon.
Personally, I prefer her natural look, though it doesn't sell perfume.

We all know no one REALLY looks like the magazine pictures. The mistake we make is to think we are looking at the person and not the image. Interestingly, even when we look directly at the person, who besides a professional can be certain whose hair is dyed, which teeth have been orthodontically straightened and whitened, which breasts are artificially enlarged, or whose face has been lifted?

Returning to Photoshop land, only a professional can tell for sure in which ways each photo has been altered. When a client wants porcelain skin, impossible muscles, or pregnant breasts atop a wasp-sized waist, the photo retoucher performs cosmetic surgery with a relatively minor cost and no physical consequences to the person involved. Most of us reveal the Before and After of our work, in order to show our skills and talents as the ultimate illusion-makers.

Britney Spears Retouched

A pin-up photo of Britney Spears, original (left) and retouched (right). Note the elongated slender legs and hoisted rear.

I suspect most photo retouchers got into the business through highly realistic drawing and painting skills, combined with a passion for appearances. I know I did. Photorealism is an unforgiving standard to attain in traditional media and handwork. In photo retouching, or “Photoshopping,” our work must be credible, meaning that an average viewer should believe the final result is a real, true photograph of a person. Our goal is to make our work invisible, which means rather ironically that we have achieved THE ILLUSION OF FACT!

I have emphasized photoshopped images of women in this article, not for the obvious reason that they are the chief consumers of beauty products and cosmetic surgery, but because the young, fertile woman holds the promise of new life. Her children will create the future, and the more perfect and beautiful she looks, the more we can fantasize that a new race of super humans will come along to clean up the wreckage we have created in the world. This is why we cannot stand to see our stars age: without them, there will be no future. The world will be hopelessly doomed.

People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person.

They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.

     – Marilyn Monroe

To summarize, people go to great lengths to look their best, even in snapshots. In the fashion and entertainment worlds, we can expect contrived and perfect-looking images because we secretly desire them. These pictures serve our need for fantasy and can therefore be separated from blotchy, lumpy, asymmetrical reality. By discerning the image from the real person, we can restore our self-esteem, confident in the knowledge that everyone has flaws and anyone with a computer, some software, and a little skill can retouch them.

Finally, I believe we should be grateful to professional photo retouchers whose convention is to reveal the “before” and “after” images. Photo retouchers are not wicked deceivers; rather, they are gifted artists who fill a much needed function in our world by furnishing the portals to our hopes and dreams.

I humbly invite you to my photo retouching page. Also check out the sites of photo retouchers I respect, including Terry Sanders, Daniel Meadows, Joan Wood, and Stephan Sagmiller.

I welcome your comments and links below.

Please stay tuned for Docu-glam Part II: Peek Performance

Sonya Shannon
Lafayette, Colorado

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bonnie Remley April 27, 2011, 5:26 pm

    Thank you for exploring the motivations behind retouching that seeks an ideal of perfection. By showing how the process moves images away from documentation and toward imagination you demonstrate the importance of acknowledging and addressing our dreams and fantasies. We can gain pleasure from contemplating pristine exemplars and perhaps become inspired to achieve the best we have to offer. At the same time, clarification of the difference between the real and the ideal has a salutary effect on the low self-esteem often prompted by comparing oneself to an image of impossibility. Showing the Before and After versions of retouched pictures underscores the folly in holding oneself to unrealistic standards. We can enjoy looking at the idealized Madonna, but it is important to acknowledge that reality has quotidian limits unknown to fantasy.

  • Robert Taylor April 18, 2011, 6:07 am

    Since photography began, practitioners of the art have been cleverly finding ways to alter their captures to make them more appealing to themselves and the viewer, it is human nature to want to improve the appearance of themselves and the things they own and do.

    To begin with, framing (their point of view), colour changes in the lighting, darkroom techniques (too many to mention) but a few examples are cropping, exposure, dodging and burning, flashing the paper, lith film techniques, double negs for texture, cross processing etc…

    As time goes by, airbrushing and painting, studio lighting, green screening, all the way to digital alteration.

    The photograph has NEVER been an honest form of representation, it’s just that in our modern age we can make it look more convincing with available technologies!

    The retoucher is a tool of the photographer / Art / Creative director, they say what they need, a pro retoucher makes it happen in a believable way.

    Photo retouching has become an essential part of commercial art, mostly I must say, for virtually everything other than skin work (unless of course one is working on a beauty campaign) most of my work is about very careful and considered comping, background extensions and colour grading, all to enhance the existing image for it to have the max impact it can have!

    To conclude, I think it is this as I have said on many occasions, “I think it’s just another fad of things to get righteously angry about, seems like a very politically correct thing to do right now and doesn’t require much effort to be angry at but never the less gives them a catharsis all the same! Also it’s a ‘punch bag du jour’ to find some issues with ones self image being distorted to make a small minded militant group of feminists rage against the ‘body politics’ of women, my god this is such an old and boring rant, but they never seem to tire of it…

    I say, let them rave, most people are aware it happens anyway, unless you’ve lived in the Arctic circle all your life… But as a pro retoucher my firm is still being commissioned to do work on images that honestly do require retouching, wether that be advanced mask and color correction or shaping things around to fit accordingly. Sometimes clothes don’t fit on the day of the shoot and need warping accordingly, sometimes make up looks a bit dodgy and needs grading in, in places, sometimes a photographer is caught up in the moment and leaves stuff in the frame that needs moving or a background needs extending, there are so many things and reasons as to why stuff is retouched, it’s not just skin and I don’t know why folks are so fixed on to that, it’s really infuriating!

  • Sonya Shannon April 17, 2011, 12:17 pm

    Steve, I totally agree.

    The trouble is that our reliance on images is just increasing, mostly as a consequence of PDAs and the consequent ubiquity of cameras. I just read an article in the NY Times, about a new consumer camera that includes a “beauty retouch” feature!!

    Body image is also relative to the abundance – or lack thereof – in a culture. Fat has been a sign of prosperity and well-being, particularly in cultures prone to famine or other challenges to the food chain. In our culture, where obesity is a huge problem due to an overabundance of food – and overly sweetened and processed food – extreme thinness is harder to achieve, so it is our version of beauty.

  • Steve April 16, 2011, 7:10 am

    The bad thing about human culture is the plasticity of the human mind. The good thing about human culture is the plasticity of the human mind. We see the retouched world as an idealized normal because we have been conditioned to it. My daughter has been studying fashion design both at her high school and FIT and the first thing they drill into them is that they have to sketch the models and these stylized anorexic creatures upon which the clothes are draped. As a student, if you deviate from these bizarrely represented human figures, you fail your class.But why is it this way? Could it be because as consumers we accept this? We are passive to whatever the media feeds us and because people who have “made it” are the ones we see in clothing ads, TV shows, the cinema, whatever, they become the benchmark against which we compare ourselves and everyone else. they become part of our culture. These images are everywhere and it is hard for a consumer culture to avoid them. In my opinion we need to go beyond consumer culture that has caused much of the dysfunction of western values and try to embrace a more human culture. We can start to respect and idolize people because they are are smart and humane rather than because they are rich.

  • Sonya Shannon April 14, 2011, 12:16 pm

    Thanks for your heartfelt insight, Laura!

    Here is a blog site that might interest you. It shows classic pin-up girls, the “before” and “after” of the original model in the photograph, and the artist’s rendition in illustration:

    Even illustrations have made young women aspire to look “better” than reality!

  • Laura April 13, 2011, 1:36 pm

    Oh, if only the very young teenaged girls could read this, maybe they could be persuaded not to torture themselves by starving their growing bodies, or spend all their money and time trying in vain to look like the models in the magazines who never looked like that in the first place!

  • Sonya Shannon April 10, 2011, 12:16 pm

    Stasia, thanks for your most provocative and intellectual questions.

    I have thought deeply about this issue of the Goddess. Basically, underneath my piece is the unstated imbalance caused by abuse, mutilation, and indifference to the Goddess energy – the Great Mother – not just the Gaia of our planet, but the integrity of the Goddess nature as a whole. The kernel of the problem lies in monotheism in which the deity is given a gender, rather than left nameless. There would be no trouble if “God” were beyond the constraints of a “He”…

    When life was rare, when human survival on earth was infinitely more precarious, there was a place of honor and sacred meaning for the feminine. Who but the female could give birth, and how could one ignore the Goddess in ancient times?! Most primitive cultures gave the various forces of nature personae and their beliefs included a pantheon of gods and goddesses – a kind of balance. Hinduism is an example of such a multi-deity system. The True Goddess – such as Kali – has power over death, destruction and return to the earth – equal to her powers of fertility and prosperity – such as Lakshmi. In our Western culture, so many forces have intervened since that the Great Goddess is all but forgotten – if not banished – from us. All we have left is the remnant Barbie Doll – the toy goddess, eviscerated of all but her cosmetic beauty. The shadow – the dark consequence – is a strange simultaneity: the destruction of the natural environment on one hand, and the absolute intolerance of imperfection in female imagery. Compared to the real Goddess, our magazine icons are mock-goddesses whose only capability is to seduce.

    I agree with you – I am also attracted to beautiful, perfect-seeming faces – and apples! It is a conflicted place for many women. I like to wear make-up, but chose to leave my hair natural. I believe older women – like the 50-something Madonna – have great gifts to offer and should not be judged on the basis of sexiness, youth, and fertility alone. We have wisdom and patience — along with discernment and wrath — in greater measure than anyone wants to allow.

  • Stasia April 8, 2011, 6:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing your insights. Very strange; if woman is a symbol of the Goddess, the Earth Mother, then is all the environmental devastation linked to these cosmetic alterations, surgery, raping and maltreatment of women? Or are you really just saying, the whole game, our societal focus is completely clued out? Still, i prefer the perfection mode as I too was brainwashed to buy into it all, including the better-quality produce!

  • Krista April 7, 2011, 7:49 pm

    Good article, Sonya! I was particularly struck by the Marilyn Monroe quote, and how hard it must be for people who have amazing outer beauty to be seen for who they really are.

    I’m looking forward to reading Part II.