Retouching: ‘The conflict of natural vs idealised beauty’

Ruth RoseBehind The Scenes


As a fashion and beauty photographer, I have always believed that my role is to create a beautiful image; that my purpose isn’t necessarily to be strictly realistic and therefore I have never had an issue with retouching. Through photography, and the other creative aspects involved in a shoot, I see my role as creating the most beautiful representation of the model possible. When a painter paints a painting or a sculptor sculpts, they are creating art; what they want to create is not necessarily a realistic representation of what they see in front of them. In the realms of fashion and celebrity photography, however, this does lead on to the question of what is beauty? And does a model have to be retouched to look a size 6, without a blemish, to be considered beautiful.

Post production and image manipulation has always been a key aspect of photography. Although, the skill of the retoucher should not be relied upon to correct bad photography, along with the makeup artist and the wardrobe stylist, the retoucher is another intrinsic element in creating the final image. A few, small tweaks in curves and levels can transform a photograph; just as photographers used to do in the dark room by over/under exposing and removing blemishes. Obviously this process has advanced, but it has evolved from the the early days of the craft. It isn’t new! Part of me is concerned when I hear talk of moving away from retouching and ‘retouching free campaigns’. For me it is part of the general photographic process and integral to the look of my images I am trying to create. Further, a 21.1 mexapixel camera isn’t necessary flattering, it can lie. The camera enhances all of the little details on people that you wouldn’t normally notice, like blemishes and skin texture, and it can obscure perspective making people look shorter or larger than they appear in real life. Retouching is then not so much about changing reality and creating an ideal, but stripping out the excess detail and distortion of the lens that photographs make us conscious of.

As a photographer there are two different strands to my work – fashion photography, where you use a model as a mannequin to showcase a garment or product and celebrity portraiture where you are capturing the person/their character. Fashion models are essentially a blank canvas, a mannequin to showcase a dress or design and therefore any distracting element such as a blemish, needs to simplified in order to not distract from the product. Just as in design, you want to simplify so you can just focus on the form and essence. And in the same vein it has been believed in the industry (something that is challenged) that clothes hang better on a slimmer, taller model; so they are chosen to showcase the product in the best possible light.

In contrast a celebrity portrait should reflect the reality of that individual and there is a moral dilemma when retouching is introduced in order to deceive the viewer. 10 years ago, shoots were a bit of a mystery and what went in to making the final images were not explained. Now shoots can be as much about the behind the scenes and the lengths gone to create the images as the images themselves. There is far more awareness in the public of what is involved; image manipulation is a phone app for everyone to access. It is not a luxury used only by fashion photographers but a means for anyone to create an idealised version of themselves or their friends to post on social media. I think the lines have become blurred now that a lot of celebrities are booked to model and emmulte the fashion models, and this is where frustration in retouching has arisen since people look at the fashion images and see differences between them paparazzi photos of the same women. When taking a portrait although I would defend the right to soften wrinkles and blemishes which are enhanced by the camera and correct unflattering lens distortion, through stripping away these perceived flaws I can accept that magazines and social media then become consumed with unblemished images. Women in particular then feel pressure to live up to this portrayed ‘perfect standard’, which is in fact not real. You only need to read any story online where these images are printed to see the frustration of the public that these individuals are photoshopped. Sometimes, however, they may not have been but it seems that the public are frustrated anyway and don’t want to be fed these perfect images anymore; that they shun a flawless image; that they want reality – even if the image itself then looks less aesthetically pleasing.

When I take my fashion photography cap off and think as a 27 year old female who has spent the last 15 years being influenced by these images of idealised beauty, I can see the flip side. I too find myself on the Daily Mail App on the train trawling through 36 photos of a celebrity in a bikini on a beach shot from multiple angles. There are such high expectations of those in the public eye that we feel its okay to critique and criticise them for their deemed imperfections. Where HAS this perception of female beauty originated? I know that to achieve that ‘perfect look’, for most, isn’t easy. Even done in a natural way, it often involves hours in the gym, scrutinizing your diet and then the time spent in hair and make up. Those hours spent on your appearance and an obsession with vanity surely comes at the expense of other important areas of your life. Further, it seems now that celebrities want their real image to match up with their manipulated image and feel obliged to get surgery. Is this what a female role model should be? Is having the ‘perfect’ appearance really what we want to display to impressionable girls as the key to life and happiness; as what defines you as a person?

I now have a niece and it has made me think about positive, female role models and natural beauty. One afternoon I was thinking about this and I couldn’t think of a female in the public eye who wasn’t also judged on their physical appearance as well as their talents. Girls go to school, get educated in science, literature, art, but society seems to show them that how they look in a selfie is what defines them and what society places the most importance on. Having found a career that I love, I can honestly say that I derive a lot of my identity, happiness and self-worth from feeling successful after a great shoot. Having said this, I do still obsess over my appearance, and think of how I look on social media. I can’t deny my absorption in the world of social media where creating this idealised beauty, idealised life has become important to me and part of what I think about.

Ultimately I am torn. As a fashion photographer, when I book a fashion model, I almost want the unattainable beauty. I am not excited by photographing someone with the same figure as mine that looks ‘real’; I want to create an image that transcends reality and if retouching is involved in this then fine. On the other hand though I can see that women are bombarded with predominantly one version of female beauty, a beauty which is often enhanced through Photoshop. For some girls & women, this version of beauty isn’t achievable and they are bound to feel undermined to some degree. I would like there to be more recognised versions of beauty in society, where women look natural, with ‘imperfections’ so that there is less pressure on women to feel they need to live up to this ideal. As a photographer though I recognise the challenge in creating these images.

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