Image Retouching: The Art and The Ethics

Image Retouching: The Art and The Ethics

If one were to open up the pages of a gossip magazine, or peruse the latest social media trend of a celebrity speaking out against their image going through retouching processes, you might develop a perception of retouchers as proverbial vampires who thrive on the impressionable youth. The reality is far different, yet perhaps the questions that every retoucher may face are still worth exploring.

The Role of the Retoucher

Part of understanding the moral debate that faces so many retouchers, is understanding the difference between the reality of the job and public perception. Simply defined, the role of the retoucher is to improve upon a photograph.

Color correction, removing distractions, and adjusting the values of an image are typically fair game for any audience. It is when a retoucher begins to manipulate a person’s likeness that they step into more dangerous waters. The connotation is that because the retoucher is perfecting skin or shrinking physical aspects of a model that they are therefore judging the subject to be flawed and undesirable. The issue becomes murkier when the bulk of manipulated imagery features women, while images with male subjects make up a much smaller percentage.

But is the retoucher to blame for all of the above?


A History Lesson in Retouching

Clients wish for their image to be aspired to, and this has been true for ages. The wealthy or influential figures of the past would often bribe the artists that captured them in paintings to enhance their portrait. They wished to gain an edge over their peers, while inspiring admiration and awe in others. This is partly why, save for differences of style, that so many historical figures whose likeness exists only in paintings, appear so drastically different between each one.

What about photographs of Hollywood stars during the 1920’s and 50’s? It may surprise you to know that retouching existed in the darkroom just as it does today. Dodging and burning, a term that all retouchers are familiar with, existed in the printing process of the darkroom. The process often involved a multitude of test prints, along with copious notes on what areas of the negative would require dodging and burning in order to flatter the subject with smoother skin and piercing eyes. What a retoucher enhances on a computer, printers were doing in the days of film.

The Modern Perception of Retouching

But the retoucher is not the one with intent, the retoucher merely complies with the desires of their client, just as the darkroom printer before them, or the illustrators and painters before them.

Whether it is for a bride, an agency test, or an advertising campaign, the client dictates the end result. In the world of fashion and advertising, clients expect the end product to be absolutely perfect. They want potential consumers to take in their images with awe, in order to inspire the desire necessary to see their products as bringing them one step closer to the ideal presented to them.


What Can I Do?

Not everyone is going to agree with what you do. They may judge your actions as demeaning, negative, or even misogynistic. Handling criticism with a cool head and maturity is pivotal. Confronting someone on the matter is about as effective as getting a facial from a leopard.

As a photographer or retoucher, you can circumvent any potential fallout with a client by simply discussing their retouching needs. For a commission that involves post-production of portraits, ask them if they have any requests. I have yet to have a client who has told me not to retouch them.

Retouching is only offensive to the client if they did not wish for their appearance to be altered. It can also become an issue if a before and after is shown of their portrait without their express permission. Otherwise, use the skills and talents that you possess. Produce a final product that will wow your client, and your audience.

Add a comment