Thursday, August 5, 2010

Defending Photoshop

Observe Lindsay's magical moving bellybutton!
Yesterday I read this article on Gizmodo: UK's Girl Scouts Cry for New Photoshopped-Images Law for Airbrushed Celebrities. We've heard it before--not only do skinny models perpetuate unrealistic expectations for media-vulnerable girls (and boys), but Photoshop helps make them even skinnier and more flawless.

I'm not a huge fan of these arguments to begin with because blaming thin models for a world of self-image and body issues seems rather narrow-minded. Saying that Barbies and Kate Moss are the sole causes of things like eating disorders overlooks the complexities of body issues, ignores the fact that society perpetuates ideas about desirable physical characteristics in other ways, and doesn't give girls enough credit (are all of us really so easily brainwashed?). I also dislike the way that some advertisements have now begun using the term "real women" when portraying models and actresses who are "curvy." First of all because they still only use women who fit a specific beauty standard, and second because...GUYS, ALL WOMEN ARE REAL. Are we supposed to believe that the thin ones are just holograms?

But back to the point, which is that "Photoshop" has become synonymous with all-out photo manipulation--it's a magic genie that puts embarrassing things in your friends' hands, pops absent family members into group pictures, and, of course, tucks in that model's tummy and erases wrinkles.

I'm not denying that Photoshop is used to make a lot of things totally unrealistic, but I think that some vehement, anti-Photoshop consumers forget that Photoshop, like any superpower, can be used for good or for evil. Let's talk 'shop:

Photographs are not perfect representations of the world as it is. Yes, they can be very accurate, and they can help us understand things that were very difficult or impossible to see pre-photography. But there will always be something that changes when you compress a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional one. The human eye is incredibly sophisticated, and while cameras can do a lot of things that eyes can't, a camera will never perfectly mimic the way the eye and brain perceive the world.

We all know that a photograph of a beautiful landscape, however lovely the photograph may be, is never quite as good as observing the landscape for yourself. Yes, part of that is the experience of being there--the smells, the sounds, all interacting with and enhancing your sight--but part of that is the simple fact that your eye notices far different things about the landscape and edits it for your brain in different ways than the photograph will. Same with people--when you're interacting with or even merely observing a person, you see that person as a three-dimensional object, and your eye often glosses over certain things without your notice.

During the summer, I work as a self-employed photographer. Most of the pictures I take are senior portraits for kids I know from high school. Recently I shot with a friend-of-a-friend, a girl I met the day of the shoot. Most clients do expect that I'll edit their pictures, because studios do airbrush the hell out of seniors, and I have to compete. And hey, it's your senior portrait, the one that'll be printed in the yearbook, the one people will remember you by. You want to look good.

But I also edit in Photoshop because there are things that show up in photographs that simply aren't noticeable in real life. When I started to flip through the pictures of my new client, I noticed some pimples on her forehead and some tiny hairs below her lip. I wasn't even zoomed in--it's just the way the light highlighted those features. I'd shot with this girl and talked to her for hours. Not once did I observe any of the flaws now glaring at me from the images. In real life, she had great skin and glossy black hair. In many of the photos, her pimples stood out, flyaway hairs (basically invisible to the eye in real life) distracted immensely, and the evening light gave her shiny hair a blue tint.

So yeah, I Photoshopped her pictures. I lightened shadows that fell across her face, I smoothed over the pimples and the facial hair, and took the blue out of her hair. I didn't do it to make her look unlike herself, I did it to make her look more like herself.

(People also ignore the fact that photographers manipulated photographs long before Photoshop. Heck, tools like Dodge and Burn are named for the darkroom processes that preceded them.)

There is, of course, a slippery slope. How do you even look at an image and decide if the camera has put too much or too little emphasis on a feature? If you can airbrush a distracting zit, is it okay to airbrush cellulite or wrinkles because they also wouldn't be as noticeable in person?

I maintain, though, that you can't give Photoshop itself a bad name. A "Photoshopped photo" isn't necessarily one that's been given excessive treatment with the liquify tool. Instead of banning photo manipulation or requiring a disclaimer, can't we educate people, especially children, about the ways that advertisers can change the appearance of an image--and why they do it?

1 comment:

  1. would you mind if i quoted you in my eight grade persuasive essay? ps. what is your name?