My life as an image retoucher
People have always wanted to look better than they really are, and there have always been products around to facilitate this desire, like corsets, make-up, botox. I myself spend a ridiculous amount of time and money having my hair made ultra-blonde, my eyebrows plucked and tinted, my nails buffed and polished.
In this digital era people are aware of Photoshop and retouching. In any given social situation when someone finds out I’m a professional in the dark art of retouching the first question is invariably: “Can you retouch my (insert profile pic, wedding photo, family portrait etc here).
When they discover my area of expertise is the fashion and celebrity world, the next question is: “Who is the hardest person to retouch?” (No, I’m not telling.)
As a specialised fashion retoucher, what I’ve done for The Punch in making a woman look much younger isn’t representative of what I do, but it does show what’s possible.
The skill of photo retouching, of manipulating the real, has been going on since the birth of photography. Nowadays almost anyone can open an image in photo editing software and “tweak it”.
Technically, even changing the colour of an image is retouching. It’s not always just “airbrushing” (which I don’t do). Things like traditional darkroom techniques of dodging and burning can be done in Photoshop and can completely change a person’s look.
I have always seen my profession as something that is complementary to photography, that adds value, but lately I think that the role of retoucher is often to fix an image. Anyone that has ever been on the set of a photoshoot will invariably hear the expression “we’ll fix it in post”.
There’s no doubt digital photography has made the industry much more popular and accessible. I suspect I was the last generation to shoot film and spend hours in the darkroom creating images with chemical-soaked hands. Those who have shot with film know the art of perfecting the shot, because film was expensive, and fixing problems afterwards even more so.
It also helped that models were beautiful and looked after themselves.
But I spend a lot of my time as a fashion retoucher fixing things like dark hair re-growth and blistered feet (just quietly, the best models have the ugliest feet!).
I recently had to charge a client almost $300 extra because the clothes that were in the shoot - the product that was being sold - weren’t ironed.
Another client was charged about the same amount because no one on the shoot bothered to sweep up the leaves on the location. So I became a glorified broom.
Then there was the shoot featuring shorts, in which the model hadn’t bothered to shave or wax her legs.
And people can spot a retouched photograph. Look at the recent shoot with Filippa Hamilton for Ralph Lauren in which her waist was adjusted to be impossibly small. The public saw it and said no. No, we don’t accept that. No, we don’t believe that.
And PS, that looks stupid.
I’m very fortunate to work with some of Sydney’s best photographers so the quality of work that I see is very high. These are the images where I feel like I add value, I make things more beautiful, more desirable.
Besides, isn’t everything in the advertising industry an exaggeration of the truth? The person who scripts a TV ad drinking a certain beer will make you more attractive doesn’t believe it, but they have a job. Likewise, I don’t think women need to be perfect but I have a client paying to produce a look and the extent to which this look is changed varies greatly.
I do work for a lot of magazines and the issue of body image is a hot topic at the moment. Earlier this month German magazine Brigitte announced it was switching from using models to “real women”, and there’s a proposal in France to label all retouched images, like warnings on food. And this week Sarah Murdoch appeared on the front of Australian Women’s Weekly without airbrushing.
But I don’t work on editorial content, and most magazines, art directors and photographers have different expectations of what a retouched image will look like, how “far” the retouching will go.
I agree there should be some kind of disclaimer that informs people when an image has been digitally manipulated, but in my experience of magazines, everything gets digitally enhanced
Besides, an acknowledgement that an image has been retouched would mean I finally get credit for my work. Hair and make-up by X, styling by Y, photography by Z, and retouching by me. Not pre-press, or digital imaging, or post-production. It’s retoucher.
I recently did some “live” retouching where a room of about 100 people could watch me work on a monitor, retouching the lingerie models they could see being photographed. The gasps and general excitement made me realise the general public isn’t aware of scale of digital alteration that takes place.
When people see a retouched image of themselves they don’t realise they are often confirming the truth that people see what they want to see. Recently I took a photo of my aunts together, then gave it a slight sprinkle of magic Abbie retouching dust before sending it to them. One said: “I thought you were going to retouch it.” My response: “I did”.
One last thing. If retouching was banned other forms of manipulation would replace it, like extra thick spray on make-up. Or – and this is increasingly possible – artists could just create whole new perfect beings in virtual 3D. And then yes, maybe she really would come with the car.
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