To photoshop or not to photoshop

I was flipping through a magazine while soaking in my bathtub the other day. It was one of those magazines that gets delivered free in my area. I don’t have high expectations of those, as the content is often badly written and apparently not proofread at all.

The articles were as expected. The only one that interested me was composed mainly of photo spreads. The concept was style and colour schemes for a seasonal wedding in each of the seasons. The winter wedding was pretty: the main photograph was of the bride clutching a white, fur-trimmed hood around her face. I looked closer.

WinterWedding Amazingly, her skin looked very natural, with variations in tone and a few imperfections. And there was a little scar on her forearm. It had not been photoshopped out!

I have been a keen user of photo editing software, almost exclusively Adobe Photoshop, for many years. It’s a very powerful program that can be used for everything from removing red-eye and resizing images to extensive pixel-by-pixel editing or global changes that can make the end product unrecognizable. We’re all familiar with the use of photo editing to, supposedly, improve on a model’s appearance. Models are routinely slimmed down, stretched and smoothed before appearing in magazines and on billboards. They present an appearance of unnatural perfection that can be harmful to people’s self-confidence—in particular, women’s and girls’. Some celebrities, notably Kate Winslet, have complained to the media about their photographs being distorted to fit the current ideal.

It was nice to see a magazine photograph that bore a closer resemblance to real life than they usually do and it made me think about the whole process of photography for publication, from the initial selection and posing to the post-processing. Prior to digital editing, of course, photographs were airbrushed to remove unwanted detail, so it’s not a new idea: it’s just that the tools are now ubiquitous and more powerful than anything previously available.

I went to a seminar years ago where the speaker talked about the political use of photo editing. In many regimes, it’s considered strategically wise to rewrite history to remove certain embarrassments—and, of course, photo editing technology allows for previous politicians to be removed from photographs. Wikipedia calls this photo manipulation and attempts to define this as distinct from photo editing, where the former is intended to deceive—or perhaps it is the degree of deception that is considered significant.

Anyway, moral issues aside, this facility is now available to all of us. Have a gorgeous photograph of yourself on a tropical beach next to a former spouse? Have the spouse removed! You might even replace him or her with the current one.

Many people dislike having unflattering photographs of themselves in circulation—even if the only people likely to see them will be their friends, who are able to regularly see the original. I used to think this was unnecessarily fussy. But maybe digital photographs have taken on greater significance in the era of Facebook and other online worlds. In many cases, you’ll never meet your cyber-correspondents face-to-face in the real world, so your photograph and the other details you choose to make accessible define many people’s version of who you are.

Hmmm: I’d better think about what messages I’m sending with my own photographs.


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