Last week I stumbled upon a website where photographer demonstrates his (considerable, in my opinion) talent for retouching and manipulating images of models. I was really impressed.
My initial reaction was that the resulting picture was a lie, in as much as it gave a false impression of… well, everything! Once I gave it a little more thought I realized that I was being rather naive (okay, stupid). Of course these pictures give a false impression – why would you want to see the reality anyway? These images are art, not documentary. They exist to create a fantasy. And as art they really work. Without the before and after images I would have been none the wiser and I think this is the key ingredient here; the “artist” has created something which you do not question when the finished image is all the information you have to go on.
However, a couple of days ago, many of the local bus stops were adorned with a poster advertising the opening of a new shop in the town centre. The poster shows the lovely Louise Redknapp in her Triumph underwear, looking fantastic. For a few seconds (I admit it would have been longer, but there was nobody waiting for the bus at this stop) I stared at the poster and admired the lighting, the set and, okay, Mrs Redknapp. Then it hit me! I know I’m looking at at a picture which has almost certainly been completely retouched. I don’t have the before and after pictures to compare, but that’s not clever lighting, it’s Photoshop. Is Mrs Redknapp really that shapely, or has she been digitally enhanced? I’m labouring the point – I know you get it.
What makes this advertising image different is that I’m expected to believe in it, although it’s still about fantasy to some extent, obviously. It’s not supposed to be art. The model is someone recognisible; someone I feel I know, in a way. This makes it feel dishonest.
Of course this has been going on for ever. Even the portraits from the old masters aren’t accurate. Famously, creating a painted portrait was more about showing the sitter in a flattering light than depicting an accurate portrayal. Isn’t this just the same thing but with modern technology?
Where do you draw the line? Is there really any difference between airbrushing away a single wrinkle and completely changing the lighting of a photograph? Is this just part of producing aesthetically great imagery or is it the corruption of something that should be more pure?