There’s a mild controversy surrounding Retouching photographs. Some people see it, when it comes to portraits, as outright deception. After all, we’re creating an image of someone without that precious wart on the end of their nose, or with the absence of that signature flab which ordinarily adorns their upper arms. Whether it’s movies, literature or photographs, people are conditioned to apply the sacred yardstick of “reality” to art forms. This is what I call The Realism Fallacy.
To take photography as one example, no matter what choices the photographer makes in rendering his image, he will never end up with anything more than a two-dimensional amalgam of light and shadow. Even if filters, Photoshop or anything else which may conceal or enhance some feature of a human subject is is left on the sidelines, the closest the photographer will ever get to the reality of the subject is a mere representation of her, which is to say about as close as a history book comes to recreating the actual horrors of the Civil War. When a human being is “present” in an artwork, they are never anything more than a representation of a human being, an illusion constructed by the raw elements of the chosen medium. When the representation closely resembles the perception the audience has of the living, breathing person, we can say the artist is applying the style of Realism. The problem arises when the viewer confuses reality with the style of Realism, two concepts inherently linked about as closely as a bottle of Dom Perignon and Castor oil.
Because photography lends itself to the style of Realism by the nature of its mechanics as a recording device, people tend to expect a strict adherence to a representational use of the medium. But since photography can be – and has been to magnificent effect - used as an artform, it has absolutely no obligation to be constrained to strongly representing aunt Sarah in a photograph. She may be rendered in black and white, with a soft focus, by abstract use of light, exaggerated colors and so on. And in doing so, the photographer is simply moving from one style (Realism) to another (e.g., Expressionism).
And this brings us full circle back to retouching. Retouching is not about concealing the duplication of reality; it’s a creative choice, fundamentally not much different than what the French Impressionists chose when they painted aunt Sarah, and rendered her looking like a vague image of a real woman named Sarah bathed in an other worldly, haze of sunlight. Theirs was a style somewhere between Realism and Abstraction, as is the case with most works of art. But, you might say, we’re only really talking about people’s vanity, not art, right? The problem here is that once you open the door to the motive behind the finished work, you are going down a road leading to psychological speculation, which entirely loses sight of evaluating the work on its own merits. Besides, why should retouching be excluded from the acceptance granted to the likes of Revlon, cosmetic surgery, Botox and tanning salons? Because it alters a photograph? If the retouching is used to alter the appearance of someone on a dating website, then we’ve clearly entered the realm of false advertising, and hence, a violation of ethics. Outside of this context, or any in which the viewer is acquiring something and expects to see the closest representation of that something as possible, to have the best idea of what they’re getting, however, freedom of expression is the default jurisdiction. There will always be exceptions.
So before protesting the sacralige of retouching, some people need to realize that, regardless of the motives, retouching is not violating “reality” to begin with, but rather just another creative choice in the manipulation of light and shadow.