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The practice of retouching isn’t always sinister, but where do we draw the line between artistic vision and the peddling of homogenous ideas of beauty? This new year Bertie Brandes encourages us to bare all...
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Chances are unless your face is your moneymaker or you have an impeccably groomed online personality (I'm looking at you YouTube Photoshop tutorials) you won't have had much direct experience of retouching. Instead, most people know it largely by its blunders: the terrible magazine covers where celebrities' arms sprout from their rib cages, or editorials where supermodels' thighs have been enthusiastically dissected and re-formed. Despite its ubiquity, airbrushing and digitally slimming models down has a pretty bad reputation and for good reason. It's hard to imagine many people disagreeing that the excessive retouching of models and celebrities is a particularly negative aspect of the media. South Park made an entire episode about it, so it's hardly a niche perspective. The idea that women ought to be airbrushed into often anatomically impossible shapes is clearly troubling; in her 2009 book One Dimensional Woman, feminist critic Nina Power describes Photoshop as having turned "fashion photography into something you'd want to lick, rather than emulate", and while there are a few photographers and stylists who have made a kind of sickly glossiness their trademark, she's absolutely right that women's bodies in magazines and advertising are often so far from recognisable they look more like freshly glazed doughnuts. Retouching doesn't have a great reputation and it probably shouldn't; it's pretty hard to argue in favour of a practice that seems, at its very core, to be concerned with homogenising beauty.
That said, there should be more thought to this argument than just a grunt of disapproval and a Change.org petition. From a creative perspective there's really nothing wrong with editing photographs, and while pretty much every photograph you see in fashion magazines will have been Photoshopped, it's often simply to bring out colours or textures, which would otherwise have been lost. The idea of losing something is interesting in other ways too. Digital photographs often feel too flat, too real. Perhaps as the magic of shooting film becomes increasingly expensive, photographers are looking for different ways to experiment on super-clear, sophisticated digital images. As far as I'm concerned, retouching only becomes problematic when the final image is lazily attempting to deceive or manipulate its audience. It helps to think of it as part of a dialogue between the photographer and the viewer, but more important is just to think about it at all, something which a lot of the time is easier to avoid. It's a mistake to ignore the nuances just because it's easier to have a blanket opinion. Knee-jerk airbrushing to promote deceptively natural, aspirational ideals is bad, yes, but that's not the end of the story.
There is, among the infinitely extended cleavage and grotesquely cropped waistlines, a genuinely compelling argument in favour of retouching. It might be distasteful to lengthen and slim bodies digitally, but isn't it more distasteful to censor every artist's or photographer's vision in order to fit with acceptable cultural principles? People talk a lot about how retouched images are damaging young women's body-confidence, but retouching and image altering goes further than the Victoria's Secret tween catalogue.
Sure, doctoring an image of a woman's body, in the quest for the absolutely aspirational, in order to sell you things, is gross, but retouching to pursue a creative idea that somehow supersedes capitalism is altogether different. Away from the mainstream, people like Jeff Koons, Nick Knight or more recently PC Music have embraced ideas of Photoshop as part of their artistic heritage - in their hands homogeny can become self-aware and funny, and retouched or digitally re-imagined images are an essential element to their aesthetic.
Clearly the issue is more complex than simply forcing everybody to put a red stamp on anything that isn't fresh from the photographer's USB stick. First and foremost, there's a difference between high fashion and highly commercial advertising, which needs to be taken into account, because the minute we start policing how everything ought to be done chances are we'll start finding our liberal intentions twisting quietly back to the conservative. If I'm starting to sound like one of those people who refuses to acknowledge the effect media can have on people's self-confidence, now is probably the time to say I've found myself on the wrong side of retouching before and it sucked.
While I'm all for creative freedom and think the idea of having disclaimers on all retouched photographs is too extreme, when it comes to mindless manipulation of images, there's no question that something needs to change. More than once somebody in a lab somewhere has decided to slim out my nose, using what looks to me like a haphazardly placed stripe of 5 o'clock shadow. It felt weird and kind of embarrassing, and even though the picture is hanging on my grandma's wall, she told me a few weeks ago that it doesn't really look anything like me and she wants a new one. I agree. When I was 11 my best friend and I used to sellotape our noses up into a Sweet Valley High "ski-jump" before we went to bed, in the hope we might wake up looking like WASPS. Obviously that's something you grow out of (and unstick, after about four minutes) and by my twenties I couldn't care less, until somebody decided to care for me, and even though it was done in the pursuit of a "better" image, I couldn't help but feel a bit like a lipsticked Frankenstein's monster. I feel like over-zealous retouching is probably turning us all back into our self-conscious tweenage selves.
I guess what it boils down to is how we understand beauty. To me, beauty is about variety, and if airbrushing is about pushing homogenous ideas of aspirational beauty then there needs to be enough variation to counterbalance that aesthetic. Instead of simply calling out people for doing things we disagree with, let's make a concerted effort to embrace a wider world of beauty. If aliens came to earth today and tried to understand humanity through the media, they'd think we were all honey-coloured, lithe and beach-ready. In fact, we're lumpy, freckly, greasy and totally unique, and that's a beautiful thing. Basically, thank God the sellotape didn't change my nose. Or suffocate me.
Text Bertie Brandes
Photography Matt Jones
Styling Havanna Laffitte
Hair Marco Braca da Kramer + Kramer
Make-up Itsuki da BRIDGE Artists per La Mer
Assistant stylist Rochelle Adam
Assistant hair Rieko Shiba
Assistant make-up Arisa
Retouching Lovely NYC
Scatti ai Jack Studios di New York
Models Anya L, Ysaunny Brito and Sophie Touchet at The Society. Mona Matsuoka, Andreea Diaconu, Karmen Pedaru, Jacquelyn Jablonski, Jac Jagaciak and Ronja Furrer at IMG. Matilda Lowther at Select.