Photoshop, Values, and the Rabbit Hole

"Feminists do the best Photoshop." —Tina Fey

Reading Rebekah’s “photo philosophy” made me consider my own. For a feminist beauty blog, I’ve barely touched on airbrushing here, and there’s a reason for that: It doesn't really faze me. It’s not that I don’t value what feminist scholars like the wonderful Beauty Redefined have to say about retouching; it’s that when you’re steeped in it all day, as I was when working in ladymags, you begin to see it as relatively benign. I tend to agree with Tina Fey’s assessment in Bossypants: “Photoshop is just like makeup.... If you’re going to expend energy being mad about Photoshop, you’ll also have to be mad about earrings. No one’s ears are that sparkly!... I for one and furious that people are allowed to turn sideways in photographs! I won’t rest until people are only allowed to be photographed facing front under a fluorescent light.”

I see the dangers of taking retouching for granted, but I’m more concerned with the number of images we’re faced with every day than what is done to any particular image. I’m thrilled that people are now educated on the preponderance of retouching, but done well, I don’t see it as particularly different than photographers using good lighting. 

More to the point here: On my own photos, I’m thrilled to have it. I’m glad to darken the eyes a little, take out a hint of shine, fix a blemish here or there. I agree with what Rebekah said in the post that inspired this one: “I want my photos to reflect the history of my life, not the history of how I wish my life had looked.” But I also agree with Fey, who wrote of her cover shoot with Bust: “Feminists do the best Photoshop… They leave in your disgusting knuckles, but they may take out some armpit stubble. Not because they’re denying its existence, but because they understand that it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.”

I don’t need every photo to make me look like it’s my best day in the best light (and even if I did, I don’t have the skills do make that happen). But if there’s something I can alter digitally that I’d be able to fix with makeup or a lighting change, I’ll do it. I’ll blot out shine, smooth out lipstick, add a little mascara. I’ll take out acne, but not my (colorless) mole; I’ll play with the color balance to make me look more luminous, but I won’t alter the image to make me look lit like a movie star.

In the name of transparency, I’ll show you what I do:

The photo on the left is the original. The middle one is what I’d do if I were posting it to this blog: I put on a warm color filter and toned down the shine; it took about two minutes. The one on the right is what I’d do if I were supplying my photo to an outlet I thought might have a broad circulationa writer pic in a print magazine, for example. (For that I’d probably try to take out the background too, but my powers are limited.) I refined the color balance, including darkening my neck so that my face doesn’t look quite as peachy. I took out the stray loop of hair and cleaned up the flyaways. I evened out the lipstick and further blotted the shine, though I left some in because I'm usually pretty shiny (you may call it dewy if you wish). I darkened the eye area to make it jump a bit more.

I also did something questionable on the last photo that I wouldn’t have done if this were a “real” situation: I ever so slightly trimmed my jawline on the right side of the picture (left side of my face). I’d like to say I purposefully did this as an illustration of how slippery the slope can be, but to be frank, that slippery slope was accidental. I’m justifying it by saying that my head was tilted so the flesh of my face was arranged a little oddly, but I know that’s a justification. I altered it because I could; I altered it because once I’d done all the other stuffthe stuff that could be fixed by a makeup applicationI wanted to take it a step beyond. I wanted to see the jawline I had 10 pounds ago. I wanted to share that image with myself. And nownot in the name of beauty, but in the name of transparency and perhaps a hint of shameI share it with you.

In the same way a photograph of an event can become a primary memory of the event, photographs can become extensions of our self-image; it’s why we can feel nearly affronted upon seeing a less-than-flattering photo of ourselves. And, for a moment, my self-image felt pretty good when I saw this brighter, more luminous version of myself. But I’m not about to argue that altering images to closer align with an imposed beauty standard should be any sort of stand-in for a healthy self-image. (I've got more thinking to do on this, clearly.) It was alarming to find myself going down the Photoshop rabbit hole: I thought I’d spend five minutes blotting my shine, and twenty minutes later I’d lost 10 pounds and had combed my hair. Perhaps that’s where the problem with Photoshop truly is: Not in the fact that it’s done, but in the fact that it can be difficult to know where the line should be drawn.

Like I said, I wouldn’t have shaved millimeters off my jaw if I were using this photo in another situationif for no other reason because it would be disingenuous for a writer who covers women and imagery to do so. But if a retoucher took my raw photo and did the same, I probably wouldn’t even noticeit's barely perceptible, and more important, the altered photo matches my mental image of how I look at my best. I’d just be chuffed that it turned out so nicely, not knowing that the retoucher took my face into her hands and imposed her own ideas onto it. For that’s what we’re getting with retouching: Not just an unreal image, but craftsmanship, which reflects the aesthetics and values of the craftsman. My values allow for shine blotting and more luminous eyes; they don’t allow for jaw shaving. Someone else’s values might not allow for the eye touchup; another wouldn’t hesitate to do even more. Our cultural values have spoken pretty loudly about not wanting out-of-control airbrushing, but neither do we necessarily want raw images eitherand even if we did, as per basic photographic theory (the photographer "retouches" merely by deciding where to point her camera), we’d be out of luck anyway.

What are your photographic values? Or, as Rebekah put it, what is your photo philosophy? Is it in line with how you’d alter or not alter your photographs? 

Edited to add: There's a poll on the right-hand sidebar of The Beheld. Where do you draw the photo retouching line? Please answer!