"I hope I'm not the only one who thinks that some of these have been retouched.”
It’s not a terribly antagonistic comment, and the commenter wasn’t even talking about my own images. But I immediately felt uneasy when I read it. It’s not just the negativity of the comment. He had to point out that the photos were probably retouched, as if that somehow invalidated the images.
Of course the images were post-processed. It’s extremely common in modeling photography. But is that really relevant? Does post-processing make the final photographs less valuable, as his critique seems to imply? It’s as if we believe applying post-processing makes the images no longer “real.”
Yes, post-processing can have a startling effect on a photograph. It can make the impossible look real. So can makeup and lighting. But there’s another element that I don’t often see discussed: what the model brings to the image.
There seems to be a culturally imposed idea that being a model is about being pretty and having your likeliness captured. It implies that beauty is a state of being. You can see this in the language we use: she is beautiful.
But modeling is not about being beautiful. Modeling is the act of creating beauty with the human form.
Modeling is the skill set that I bring to the process of creating art. I need to know when to twist, and what direction. I need to know when to cock my hip to enhance my curves into an exaggerated hourglass figure, and when to raise my ribcage to lengthen my torso instead. I need to know how to create expressions that convey different emotions. I even need to be aware of exactly how to hold my hands--hands can be as expressive of emotions as the human face. I need to understand the concepts of negative space, foreshortening, and how to create poses that are interesting to the human eye. I need to be able to tell a story or create a character without motion—I only have one frame. And I need to do all of this while still maintaining the suspension of disbelief in the viewer that this is not posed, stiff, or fake in any way. All of these are things that I do. None of them are things that I am.
This idea that modeling is not a skill, but merely the state of being beautiful affects more than just our view of models. Photographers have to constantly fight against the idea that photography isn’t art. It’s the “I could have taken that” mentality. Just like the belief that models are just beautiful people in real life instead of artists skilled in creating beauty, there’s the matching belief that photographs capture reality as it is. All the photographer has to do is click the shutter. Of course, there’s so much more to photography than that.
I’m sure you’ve seen the classic pin-up art from the 40’s and 50’s. What’s interesting is that you can find reference photos for a few artists, such as Gil Elvgren. If you compare the original photographs to the final paintings, you can see the liberties the artist took. Waists are thinned, busts are enhanced, and legs and necks are lengthened, all to create the ideal of feminine beauty. It’s like a laundry list of what we complain about when a photo of a model is manipulated. I’m not saying that it’s wrong for the artist to do so—after all, we all know that they’re paintings. We know that they aren’t real. Paintings aren’t an accurate depiction of reality.
If we know that advertisements that use pin up art aren’t real, then why do we think a photograph on a billboard is?
I do agree that we have a problem with the types of images that we are putting on billboards and magazine covers, and even in our fine art. We have an unrealistic expectation of feminine beauty, and that expectation is contributing to body image issues, eating disorders, and objectification.
But the problem isn’t post-processing. If we didn’t have Photoshop, models and photographers would find another way to create that beauty, be it through pose or in-camera manipulation. We are experts at creating beauty, and we will continue to do so. The problem is the idea that a photograph is an accurate representation of reality, instead of an interpretation of it by an artist.
Photography, like any other art form, has inherent biases. So does modeling. Just like paintbrushes are used by artists to create their visions of beauty, so are lenses and post-processing. Photoshop is just another artist’s tool. Art isn’t about being a perfect copy of reality. It’s about creating beauty and an emotional response in the viewer. Instead of trying to critique a tool, we need to change our belief that photography and modeling are real, rather than another form of art.