THE STEALTH WORK OF RETOUCHING
Retouching is a job best done in the dark. Despite what you may believe according to the on/off airbrushing debates, it is a job which, if done well, leaves no trace. The better it’s performed, the less it gets talked about. We make people look good – not just the subject, but also the photographer, the stylist, the model and everyone on the shoot, whose input is less than 100%. We improve and ‘finish’ their work. Retouchers are the ultimate fixers. We fix and finish photographs.
We fix faces, figures, clothes, wonky walls, dirty floors and the odd telegraph pole emerging from the model’s head. We remove roadworks, houses, beer bottles and cigarette butts, and the mobile phone in someone’s pocket. We fix the composition, adjust the colour, re-orchestrate the lighting and create an interesting mood.
We give the photographer’s work a distinct look, and apply his/her ‘style’ on demand. Or even someone else’s style; it’s often asked of us to reverse engineer a well-known photographer’s style and apply it to a series of images. When there’s no art direction we give it our best anyway, even when the client brief is: “Just make it more interesting!”. Usually I struggle to keep a bit of humanity in the shots; a bit of reality. Often I lose that battle. Flawless finish is simply what’s expected. I’m not going to illustrate this post. If you’re reading it I’m sure you already have an insight into the subject, but if you need to see examples of retouched images, have a look at my retouching showcase.
THE COME-AND-GO AIRBRUSHING DEBATES
And then, at regular intervals, we shady creatures get pulled into the limelight. When the big ‘Airbrushing’ debate once in a while rears its head, we are dragged out of the shade, and we emerge, blinking, to answer for our sins in the media.
For surely it’s all our fault; anorexia, the pressure on young girls, rampant consumerism and quite possibly the end of the world.
Retouching is by many seen to be downright evil. It’s criticised as being complete fantasy. It glamorises and idolises the rich and powerful, makes the skinny even skinnier, and pretty girls get even smoother and more symmetrical. It’s funny how media players suddenly forget their own retouched press shots when there’s a new wave of the big airbrushing debate. A couple of years ago I was listening to a certain female presenter on the radio, getting on her high horse about the ethics of models being airbrushed and normal women (for example like herself; bottle blonde, overwheight and middle aged) not being able to live up to that image. Well, don’t you think her own press shots have been retouched? Count on it! I emailed her during that show to mention just that, but of course there was no comment or reply. If you’re in any doubt, I can say that everyone visible in the media gets the treatment – men, women, young, old, pretty, ugly or just downright average. To think it’s just models who are retouched is a totally naive notion. I’ve retouched press images of UK celebrities who have publicly gone out against retouching, and it’s quietly been approved or gone below the radar.
RETOUCHERS ARE THE PERFECT SCAPEGOATS
When the outcry against ‘airbrushing’ arises once in a while, the media go looking for scapegoats. They contact retouchers like me, and do their best to make us look like the villains, with the lure of 15 minutes of fame. I’ve been approached several times. Mostly I’ve declined. But once, for a well-known broadcasting company, I said yes, and was asked by them if I could retouch an image of the presenter to pixel-perfection, and to transform her to look airbrushed/unreal. I think they were quite upset when I retouched the rather low-quality, unprofessionally shot photo that was handed to me, making it look more faithful to the lovely presenter who was actually sitting right next to me – just bringing out the best in her; un-hunching her shoulders (that were normally straight), making the hair a bit more symmetrical, and reducing the glare of a flash that had bleached out her face. In short, I gave her image more dignity and fidelity to the real person sitting next to me. Clearly it was not what they wanted, but it went on-air, and I got the feeling I had not lived up to my role as the terrible airbrusher.
VANITY IN PORTRAITURE IS NOTHING NEW
It’s funny how critics of retouching forget about hundreds of years tradition of portrait painting. Realism? I don’t think so. Flattery? For sure. It’s an age-old tradition, and anyone who per se is anti-retouching should take a course in art history, and they will realise this is nothing new. Important figures through the ages have always commissioned vanity portraits, and painters have always obliged, making the sitter appear more powerful, iconic and attractive. Do anti-airbrush-campaigners ever consider that there’s a commissioning client behind pretty much every published image today? And who do they think calls the shots? The retoucher? I hate to tell you, but we are the ones with the skill, not the will. Retouchers are typically instructed by their client:
“She looks a bit chubby, that leg’s a bit strange, the eye bags need to go”. Retouchers are generally briefed to remove anything that doesn’t conform to the norm, under the motto – when in doubt, remove or reduce. “And then there’s her arms, she’s funny about her arms, can you do something about that arm hair?”
IT’S NOT JUST THE WOMEN WHO GET THE TREATMENT
“Oh yes, and Damian says can you chisel him a bit more than the other guys in the band. … oh, and check his hairline, will you?”– For the record, it’s not just women who are heavily retouched. The male players in the music industry are often quite obsessed with it. What’s so funny is that these suggestions are often indirect. The retoucher’s brief is often vague and rarely comes in writing. “check this, check that” – a very subtle way of saying “change this, change that”. Or “smooth this, smooth that”, which is the most oft-used term. For the record, pro retouchers don’t airbrush (in the common understanding of the word), ‘Airbrushing’ is a complete misnomer, used by people who have no understanding of the professional process. But we remove – oh yes we remove everything that’s disturbing. Everything disturbing that the photographer didn’t see, or simply a part of the background that couldn’t be physically removed.
I was once asked to remove a whole person. He represented half the image, and happened to stand in front of a highly detailed chair. I had to rebuild the chair. Why? The other guy wanted to be on his own in the image.
FROM THE VAGUE BRIEF TO PIXEL PERFECTION
The client pressure for perfection is usually a veiled, often guilt-ridden demand. Nobody really likes to summarise the extent of the retouching and admit that the image is nothing without radical digital intervention. Not to mention confidentiality agreements and the hush-hush on bigger commercial jobs, especially for cosmetics companies. It’s only when the retoucher doesn’t take the art director’s polite hints at digital cosmetic surgery, that the directives start coming hard and fast, at 20 emails per hour. Suddenly the client pipes up. The photographer, who handed over images without comment or a brief is suddenly on the ball, with lots of ideas and solutions. And his agent too. It’s suddenly as if the clothes chosen for the shoot and that were so cool at the time, are now wrong wrong wrong. “Sorry, her legs are way too fat, please make them thinner. And longer please. The belt makes her look awful. That dress wasn’t meant to be shiny. Or red. Please make it white!” Suddenly the lighting is considered all wrong, and we feel almost as if we were the culprit, when the art director says “I know his double chin is lit from below… but surely you can shade it thinner.” Ah well, so much for holding back and keeping it real.
These direct instructions usually happen verbally – never in writing. Deniability is crucial for those that commission retouching, especially in organisations that are seen to be politically correct.
So ‘they’ want to label retouching, on a scale of 1-6 (6 being immoral, lethal and downright degrading). Absolutely fine by me. If that’s the only way retouchers can get credit in a magazine or on a CD cover, I’ll say yay to that. Because you won’t see my name on the credits even if I spent a day or three, giving it my very best. But please, let’s also label the politician’s press shot, and the BBC’s press images. What’s always funny is how every public figure believes in the authenticity of their own press shot, that they are somehow that well put together, composed, tidy, svelte and definitely not shiny-nosed. I hate to break it to you, most photography that emerges from the camera these days is completely unsuitable for publication, and most of the photographers who approach the likes of me gets a firm refusal when they offer us work on below-par images. Thankfully there are still some good photographers out there that I’ve enjoyed working with, but on the whole, there is a shortage of skill in the profession, and the threshold for calling oneself a photographer appears to be the ownershop of a professional camera, a half-decent lighting kit and a business card.
Towards the end of the film “The Ghost” the ex-prime minister’s ghost writer, played by Ewan McGregor sneaks in as a “plus one” at his own book launch. “Ghost writers are never invited at launch parties as a rule. We’re an embarrassment, like a mistress at a wedding”
IS IT POSSIBLE TO CREATE PERFECT IMAGES WITHOUT RETOUCHING?
The concept of “perfect” is subjective, so I can only speak for myself. But I worked as a commercial photographer for a decade, without retouching, and the attitude then was totally different. We had to plan the shoot in detail, often with storyboards, and then clean up the location, styling it as perfectly as possible. Hair-stylists had to work to perfection and be on set all the time. The same went for stylists, who were in constant attendance, as any wrinkle in the clothes would be unacceptable. I would often set the focus very selectively, throwing large parts of the image out of focus and with bokeh, to disguise and simplify flaws in backgrounds. To make a long story short, the work that often gets done in post-production today, would be dealt with in pre-production back then.
Is it possible to not rely on retouching? Yes, I think it can be avoided to a great extent. But can we have a workflow without Photoshop (or the equivalent)? No, because images have to be digitized, and in this process they have to be colour-corrected at the very least, then resized and sharpened, and the temptation will always be to fix some flaws while we’re in that process.
CREDITING RETOUCHERS WORK?
Personally, I’m a fanatic about good and great photography, and for me it’s a triumph when a photo needs no retouching at all, apart from interpretation of contrast and colour. That’s my holy grail. Sounds like I am in the wrong job, and I’d say that’s a quite correct conclusion. I’ll admit I’ve worked as a retoucher for bread and butter– not for passion – and I’ve always done photography for love. I got into retouching almost by mistake. It simply segued from retouching my own images (as little as possible) to being asked to retouch other photographers’ work, as the industry to a great extent stopped paying for editorial photography. Having transitioned from a world of light, to this shady world of retouching, where my input often is no less than that of the photography, I feel that my colleagues and I deserve some credit. The amount of work done in post-production today often exceeds the labour put into the shoot – yet there is seldom any mention of it.
Look at the credits in for example Vogue magazine. There are credits for photographer, models, stylist, make-up artist, hair stylist, and often for production and assistants. There’s even a credit for the manicure, even when you hardly see the nails. But do you see a credit for retouching? No. Most magazines have a policy of no credit for the post-production, retouching, or whatever you want to call it.
COPYRIGHT AND THE RETOUCHER’S INPUT
In Annie Leibowitz book “At Work” she talks at length about the contribution from her assistants, but, nothing about the significant work of her retouchers, apart from saying that (quote) “the digital guys (presumably digital assistants) made it sound like it was all smoke and mirrors”. If I say that her images are widely known to be retouched by Box Studios or Pascal Dangin, one of the most lauded retouching artists, and that her images are usually extensively retouched these days, wouldn’t that be worth a mention? If photographers were to be honest about their work, should they not be willing to talk about the collaboration or contribution from skilled artists with essential creative and technical input? Well – I guess nobody likes it when someone else steals their thunder, but please give credit where credit is due! Let’s face it, people are only too quick to deal the blame on retouchers when retouching goes wrong. In extreme cases, when what you’re looking at is nothing short of a digital painting, I would even question the copyright belonging to the photographer. Often one published image is a composite of several shots, even if the final output doesn’t look like a montage. On the other hand, we have to take for granted that today all images go through at least a minimum level of post production, such as colour adjustment and sharpening for output. That’s just part of the process and therefore we cannot say that there is such a thing as a non-photoshop workflow. There’s always a level of judgement, contrast and ‘cleaning’ involved.
But if a photographic image is un-publishable without extensive correction and creative retouching, should there not be a joint artistic credit?
CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS?
At the risk of professional suicide, these are some thoughts I’d like to throw out there for further discussion. In a nutshell, could we turn around the debate on retouching, to a more constructive view on the retouching profession and its role? Instead of a retouching rating system or a public health warning, could we instead fight for more exposure of our work, and cast it in a more professional light? I know most retouchers are very discreet about the work we do, partly because we are privy to a certain intimacy with our subjects, and we feel somehow loyal to those faces and bodies we scrutinize and manipulate at a larger-than-life view. It’s a well-paid job, and it’s quite natural that most of us are afraid to lose work by talking about it – even more so demanding a credit. I wish the retouchers who sit in shaded rooms could come together and use our collective voice to put pressure on those who commission the retouching, to honour our highly skilled and creative work with a credit. Going back to what I said at the beginning, when we do a really great job, the work we do doesn’t get noticed. Why is it only the retouching that goes overboard that gets the attention? It’s because our good work goes quietly under the radar.
I’ve stuck my head out, and I only dare to share these thoughts as I am now leaving this profession and I have nothing to lose. I still care about the ethics and skills of retouching and I hope that future retouchers will fight for a better positioning in this industry. Now – get that ball rolling…
It’s in your court now. Pass it on!