Editorial: They’re Not Perfect Either

That’s right – those people you see in the magazines – they’re not perfect. Just ask Pascal Dangin (left), the premier retoucher of fashion photographs in New York. A recent article published in the New Yorker magazine interviews Dangin and reveals some of his experiences. In it he is described as “… the premier retoucher of fashion photographs. Art directors and admen call him when they want someone who looks less than great to look great, someone who looks great to look amazing, or someone who looks amazing already—whether by dint of DNA or M·A·C—to look, as is the mode, superhuman.” (1)

As a former retoucher and now college educator, I am conflicted as to how best discuss the ethical considerations of doctoring a photo while also preparing students to be proficient at it. After all, being a fashion retoucher sounds like a pretty good gig right out of college. Society accepts retouching in fashion photography but not in photojournalism—but is the delineation always apparent in our voracious ingestion of images when the editing tools and delivery media are the same? A recent dove beauty ad campaign entitled “Evolution” exposes the fashion industry’s magic tricks of makeup, lighting and retouching. For my students, watching the video breakdown of the ad campaign (cleverly acting as the ad itself) was a surprise. They claimed that it is one thing to know an image is retouched, but quite another to see the blatant breakdown process. According to the class being surveyed—the dove video (below) questioned their “trust” in the photographic image.

In course lectures, I do my best to review historical examples of photo manipulations that maliciously aim to fool as well as those which qualify as glamour or fantasy. Historical precedence shows that photo manipulations are most questioned (and discouraged) when they attempt to pass truth. Such attempts are illustrated in many examples: the fictitious composite of Jane Fonda and John Kerry at an anti-Vietnam rally, the June 27th 1994 TIME magazine cover with OJ Simpson’s darkened skin and the LA Times photographic coverage of the Iraq war by Brian Walski, to name a few.John Kerry and Jane Fonda Fake Image

While attention is given to a misinterpretation of a documentary scene – should the same attention be given to a fashion campaign’s false messaging? Or are these types of photographs more clearly recognized as fantastical illustration? What do we teach our students?

Enhancing portraits has long been practiced through lighting, makeup and physical airbrushing— but the every day use of heavy computer imaging is not very old. Retouched fashion photography is the norm and so is the manipulation of images we see everywhere. Over time, our general acceptance and expectation of what a photograph actually is has changed. Fred Ritchin, NYU Professor and author predicted this shift back in 1990. He summed it up when he stated:
“the malleability of the image may eventually lead to a profound undermining of photography’s status as an inherently truthful medium” (Ritchin, ‘Photojournalism in the age of computers’, in Squiers, ed 1990, p. 28).

Has Ritchin’s prediction come true? How do we move forward defining fact vs. fiction to emerging photographers and retouchers alike? Please tell me what you think.

(1) Pixel Perfect, Pascal Dangin’s virtual reality. New Yorker Magazine
by Lauren Collins

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