January 21, 2014

Photos, Fashion & Photoshop (or, Why Nothing We See is Really “Real”).

If Vogue or actress Lena Dunham was looking for free publicity, then they got it last week, in droves.

The debate over how much Photoshop was used for the latter’s debut Vogue cover and fashion spread set the internet on fire. Even the NY Times has covered it. Those who had only a vague idea of who Dunham was or never even heard of her show Girls prior to this gave their opinion: showing a plus-sized woman was a breath of fresh air.

Why on earth did Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour—who is not known to be a champion of body diversity—choose her as a cover model?

Things really heated up when feminist website Jezebel offered a $10,000 bounty for any unPhotoshopped images of the session. Within 24 hours, they got what they wanted and the unretouched photos showed exactly just how much Photoshopping took place.

The outcry was swift: several accused Jezebel of acting like schoolyard bullies ganging up on the “fat girl” and shaming her. One went so far as to say that it was “one of the most counterproductive acts feminism has ever seen.”

As a photographer, feminist and lover of fashion magazines, I couldn’t help but weight in with my own opinion: the fact is, every image we see whether it is Photoshopped or not has been altered in some way. This isn’t anything new.

Also, as someone who both dabbled in modelling (albeit as a very young child and as a figure model) I’ve seen first hand how lighting can make all the difference in the world. As I wrote while recounting my experiences as a nude artist’s model, it was usually the lighting that took the longest part of any photo session. Lighting experts who work in photography, television or film get paid big bucks and for good reason: good lighting can make all the difference between “pretty” vs. “ugly.”

Add to that the amazing talents of make-up artists, clothing designers and stylists picking out the most flattering clothing combinations for that individual’s body, and it’s safe to say that nearly everyone could look “amazing” under those circumstances alone.

Throw in Photoshop, and it’s likely the majority of women (and men) could fit this society’s standard of beauty.

There is something magical when these come together to form amazing images. I know from using Photoshop and other programs similar to it, that they are a lot harder to use than the average lay person may realize. As a professional photographer friend of mine recently remarked, the most amazing Photoshop wizards are those that use the program, yet do so in such a subtle way that the viewer has no idea the photograph has been altered.

While I can appreciate this as art, and while I have the knowledge to know that if I see an ad or picture in any glossy magazine the images have been altered, I cannot deny that these images have an effect on very young girls who see these images of perfection and aspire to look like them.

I know because I did the same thing as a young girl.

Growing up in rural Eastern North Carolina, I eagerly awaited my copies of Allure and Teen Magazine to appear in the mail each month. Given that this was in the days before the internet, those magazines were my only link to what I thought was the big, glamorous world of fashion and places like New  York,  London and Paris.

I took what they said as the Gospel. 

Flash forward 20 years, and not a lot has changed—or so it seems when I speak to preteen and teenaged girls  Indeed, it may be argued that the internet and proliferation of celebrity culture has made these girls even more obsessed with celebrities and models than my generation was even though I came of age during the time of the supermodels.

Unlike some, I don’t think the solution lies in banning such things or demanding major magazines or advertisers to stop using digital enhancement, though it would be nice to see them use less of it. Rather, I wish there was a way for people to know that these are creations—the very definition of an artificial reality.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that, either. Those of us who have been to the National Gallery in London, the Frick, MOMA, or the like, probably know that even in the paintings we see, it’s probable that people were altered and enhanced in some way.

When I lived in London and saw a number of celebrities out and about—Kate Winslet, Ewan McGregor and Jude Law to name a few—I often did not recognize them until someone pointed out who they were. I was always surprised how they looked more like people who resembled their own screen and print personas than actually look like the images I saw of them in the public domain.

In many ways this was refreshing. This is not to say that they were unattractive. It’s just that seeing them in the flesh without the help of professionals made them look far more human.

In the end, I don’t believe that it is a betrayal of feminism or a personal attack on Lena Dunham for Jezebel and others in the media to ask just how much Photoshopping took place.

I believe Dunham when she says that she was “never bullied into anything.” However, I would like for Vogue and the rest of the media to admit that heavy Photoshopping is very much the norm for this industry. Trying to deny it or claiming that only a minimal amount is used isn’t just laughable, it’s a lie.

The truth is, perfection sells.

It always has.

Still, I wish that images would come with a disclaimer saying: “FYI: What you are about to see is not real, but enjoy.”

Much like when I recently took my four-year-old to see Frozen and she enjoyed it but said afterwards, “Mummy, I liked it even though I know it isn’t really real.”  We should approach Vogue and other magazines like that as well: we can like them, but it’s not real.




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Editor: Bryonie Wise

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