Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ethics of Retouching

Basically, these are images from a recent shoot. I'll have more to say about that later.

OK, it's later.

These are images wherein some retouching was used. The problem which came up was the type of retouching. There's some software around now which is pretty sophisticated, and aside from just touching up skin blemishes you can pretty easily balance skin tones, give somebody tan skin or apply lipstick without a lot of meticulous hand work in Photoshop. A lot of people want their photos touched up in this way. But the technique in question on the images above is one of facial sculpting. If you do it a little, a lot of folks will rather like it and not realize that it's been done. If you do it a lot, then the person in the photo doesn't really look like themselves anymore. A lot has been said about retouching in the media in a very critical way. I'm not here to argue one way or the other about that. All in all I do not want young women or men for that matter comparing themselves to crazily photoshopped images thinking that those images are reality and that they need to lose weight, or grow longer legs or a longer neck or wider eyes, or bleach their teeth or any of that stuff. But the fact of the matter is photographs have never been reality, the best photographers have always been great at bending reality to suit the needs of the image and we're just better at it now, and also much worse, by means of technology. You can now create beautiful images, or hideous images and everything in between with alarming dexterity.

One thing which happens from time to time is that I get asked some variation on the question "are those the real colors?"  or "did the sky really look like that?" etc. And the answer is, "how should I know?" Nobody can compare a moment in time with a photograph. The moment has passed. Cameras, lenses and all associated gear distort. Computer monitors for the vast majority of people have never been calibrated, therefore the colors, contrast, brightness are typically preset at a fairly inaccurate factory default. From there, translating an RGB image to a CMYK for print is a pretty sketchy process-- far from exact. The other answer, the one I really want to give to the question which is pretty much asking if I represented reality correctly is: "I don't know and I don't care, because that is not what I'm going for." I notice nobody asks a painter if his colors are accurate. You either like a painting or you don't. I guess the whole problem began with the idea of "photo realism". Well it's not real. It never is and it never was and it never will be.

However, getting back to the images above. They have been retouched, really I should say "manipulated" so that the image of the person photographed no longer looks enough like that person to be truly recognizable. In essence the image is now a different person, a person who doesn't exist. Just so we don't get confused, an image is never a person, an image is always an image and only a person is a person. So, is there a problem? Yes, there's a big problem if you're doing a portrait for a person. They want to look like themselves, only better. The "only better" part is only slightly hypocritical. Of course people want to look their best in a photograph, even if they never really look that good anywhere else. Sorry, but it's true. However I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that a lot of people who look great in real life don't photograph very well. "Photogenic" just means you tend to photograph well and rather easily from a variety of angles and with a variety of facial expressions. A photograph is a distortion of real life, always.

 If, for example, somebody shot a photo of me and then presented me with an image which looked like Brad Pitt, well there's a problem because I don't much resemble Brad Pitt. I'm pretty OK with looking like myself, and I wouldn't want others looking at a photo ostensibly of me and saying, "Who is that guy? He looks a bit like Brad Pitt?"  So the weird part about being a good photographer and retoucher is, if you use the techniques skillfully, and "enough" you'll get lots of compliments and maybe even some money too. If you're really skillful you might even push the envelope a little, thus getting more compliments and money. But if you go too far, now you're not only bad at what you do, but are somehow a sinner; a person who has done wrong. You've insulted your subject. Maybe you've insulted some sacred concept of what humanity is, especially if you tend to manipulate or erase family genetic characteristics or even "racial" characteristics.

I'll admit I'm in some conflict over this. The painter/artist side of me prefers to be free to use brush and paints as I wish. There's an old photojournalist side of me wants the entire art to be capturing a moment in time perfectly. The counselor side of me cares more about the truth of an "honest" image, and of course I care most about people.

But as a portrait photographer  I look for good light and if I don't find it I create it. I try for the best camera angles which will distort in a complimentary way. I select lenses specifically to flatter my subject. I turn off any in-camera "sharpening" and let the bayer filter fuzz things up pretty good. In essence I put the rose colored filter (figuratively) on before we even start. People pay me for that, people hug me for that and get all teary eyed over it. So far nobody has said, "Oh come now, I don't look that good. Go back and ugly it up."

I mean, it could happen, anything could happen. But really I think that if I create an image it should simply be judged on it's own merits like any image. Any resemblance to reality is superficial anyway. If I go too far, I haven't ncessarily ruined an image, but shifted its usefulness from one realm to another. You know, Bugs Bunny doesn't look much like a real rabbit, but he still has his place in cartoons, because after all real rabbits don't talk, wisecrack or outsmart Elmer Fudd, but there's a place for Bugs, and we accept that.; not as a real representation of a rabbit, far from it, he's a created illusion with distinctly unique characteristics, much like a photograph. Still, you'd be right if you said that Bugs was a bit cartoonish . . .

And the fact of the matter, the reality of where we are today with digital photography, is that images approaching the ordinary likely won't get any attention at all. They won't stand out. And if a potential client gets the idea that they, or cousin Jimmy, could take photos just as well as you do, you won't get hired. This sets up an unfortunate scenario of escalation. The slippery slope being that manipulation of images becomes the "norm" to an extraordinary degree, and that any image not employing wild techniques is considered inferior or sub-standard.

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