just a thought – photoshop police state

just a thought — Danielle on September 8, 2010 at 9:40 pm


There’s a certain aspect of the internet that drives me nuts. Its when the mob goes mental over the most minute, mundane things as if Great Revelations of Terrible Injustice are being made. A great example of this phenomenon in fashion blogland is Photoshop Phreakouts.

Examples of bad photoshop jobs are everywhere and are not exactly news stories, except that they are. Sites like Jezebel have popularized this genre of blog posts, always delivered with an accusatory tone. The posts always generate a ton of comments. Something about them usually bothers me, whether the accusation of “photochopping” seems justified, or not.  This post has been a long time on the back burner, because its taken me a while to tease out what it is that really gets to me when people get so indignant about this subject. Lets break it down.

1. The Photoshopping is so Glaringly Ridiculous it is Obviously Accidental

Examples: Ralph Lauren’s lollipop-head model, Bloomingdale’s razor-elbowed model

This stuff is genuine AHA “journalism”, even though it shouldn’t be, because all it takes to uncover something wrong with the image is the sense of sight.  Because bloggers are perfect people who never screw up ever, they’ve been endowed with the right to shame mere mortals who make mistakes. No creative director allows this kind of stuff to see the light of day on purpose, its not a conspiracy to make people feel like their elbows are not acute enough. It is just the result of human error, and there’s something about gleefully, self-righteously shaming people for making honest mistakes, whether caused by omission or inexperience, that bothers me. It is bullying.

2. The Photoshopping is so Tastefully Done, People Mistake Real Incongruity for Bad Retouching

Examples: Demi Moore’s angled hip on the W cover, Nordstrom’s skinny polo shirt model

This one drives me crazy, because its often seized upon by otherwise intelligent people who should know better. One thing that I’ve learned as someone who draws, is that when you really pay very close attention to the way things actually look in real life, they often look really weird. Often when I’m using reference material, I have to make changes to the way something is folded or change the angle of an arm or a hand, because if I don’t, the drawing looks awkward or “unnatural”. Even though I’m using a real model or an un-retouched photograph as a subject.

My ex, who works in special effects explained it to me really well once, he observed that real snow often creates unusual looking formations that don’t conform to our expectations of how snow should look. When he dressed a set to look snow-covered, it was more important to do it the way that people expect snow to look like rather than imitating actual nature. Otherwise, the eye gets drawn to unimportant details instead of focusing on what’s important in the scene.

Really tasteful photoshop jobs are incredibly subtle – if you look at the Demi Moore photo in question above, you can see that a few minor changes were made, to the angle of the ring, the saturation of the colours, the fold on the waist. But mostly, the photo was left alone. The paradox is that for a sharp-eyed audience tuned to spot “photochops”, the focus was on the sharp angle of her hip, obscured by the swag of fabric on the bodysuit. Looked at in isolation, the line seems too straight and looks wrong, however when I traced the outline of Demi’s body, the proportion and angles all seem to be in the right place. The irony here is that the real mistake might have not enough photoshopping, because if a slight curve was introduced by the retoucher nobody would have “noticed” anything wrong.

3. The Photoshopping isn’t Recognized for the Art it Is

Examples: David LaChappelle’s portrait of Sophie Dahl, Madonna for Louis Vuitton

Photoshop isn’t just a totalitarian tool to turn people into idealized robot versions of themselves – its an incredible tool that allows artists to transcend reality to create fantastic visions and impossible scenarios. Accusing LaChappelle of using Photoshop is like blaming the rain for being wet – this is what LaChappelle does! Madonna has been creating over-the-top, fantastic identities for herself for her entire career, using every weapon in her considerable arsenal – why should she be barred from using photoshop too?

Marlene Dietrich continued her career as an icon of style and glamour with a stage show well into her sixties and even seventies. She did this with lighting, makeup, restrictive garments, every artifice she could get her hands on. She would have loved the possibilities of Photoshop. There’s an anecdote I read in this book that I am reminded of – at one stage show a member of the audience brought out a pair of binoculars. Dietrich stopped the show to call him out. “No,” she said, “don’t ruin the illusion.”.

For those who want unimaginative reality, you have it surrounding you every day of your life. Some of us want to create and enjoy fantasy and beauty that transcends the ordinary, that is exceptional, even impossible. If you don’t like it, don’t buy fashion magazines, go to movies, or consume any other type of art or media, and please, stop spoiling it for the rest of us.

4. The Photoshopping is Overdone

Examples: Kelly Clarkson on the SELF Magazine cover, Faith Hill on the Redbook cover.

This is the one flavour of photoshop outrage I don’t have a problem with. Photoshopping people to appear a different size or age than they actually are is patronizing, distasteful, and insulting to both the subject and the audience.

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    3 Comments »

    1. [...] Danielle Meder of Final Fashion breaks down the Great Photoshop Debate. [Final Fashion] [...]

    2. Love seeing the before and afters on Madonna- just amazing work!

      I do think though that the ridiculous photoshopping for Ralph Lauren and Bloomingdales is just a marketing experiment to get people to actually stop and look at the images- maybe even a new younger audience on the internet!

      Comment by Jessica Rose — September 17 2010 @ 9:44 am
    3. I totally know what you mean about things looking weird the more you look at them – and yeah, it is weird how our expectations play into that. Great article.

      Comment by Amy — September 27 2010 @ 5:48 pm

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