November 7, 2012 Looks

Haute Off the Press: The Art—or Not—Behind Beauty Photography

Each week our no-holds-barred contributor Grace Gold picks apart a hot beauty topic. It’s our version of an op-ed—with hair, eyeliner and lipstick.
We all know the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” yet there has been no time during which that phrase has been truer than in today's digital age. We share funny images that entertain, we upload personal snaps to socialize and pore over stunning beauty shots that inspire and captivate us with color and creativity. Almost across the board, these photographs are altered.
"Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop," an exhibit on view through January 27 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, explores the human fascination with imagery manipulation, whether for artistic, entertainment or illusory purposes. The show highlights work from the 1840s through the 1990s, when computers replaced manual techniques as the preferred means for reconstructing photographs.
In beauty, photo manipulation is not without controversy. Some argue that beauty images that become more flawless through retouching push women to strive for looks that are impossible to achieve, and that could contribute to low self-esteem. Others argue that Photoshop increases our visual enjoyment of pictures by making them crisper, cleaner, brighter and more compelling, and that viewers even prefer enhanced cover images and advertisements when given the choice.
Is there a fine line between increasing the artistry of an image with Photoshop and breaching the integrity of the image and its subject so much that it turns into covert manipulation? And if there is a line, at which point is it crossed?
Personally, I think that erasing distractions, like stray hair strands or dark circles under eyes, can make an image and the message it is conveying more powerful without compromising the essence of the subject. And similarly, when Photoshop work is so obvious that the image is clearly intended to engage the senses like a piece of artwork hanging in a museum, I love to contemplate and relish the human touch.
For me, the hazy area lies somewhere in between, when extreme fiction is presented as truth. In these instances, you aren’t necessarily aware that the work done has transformed the photo into something that doesn’t actually exist. I am not talking about erasing bumps, bruises or discoloration on skin; I get that, and would likely even request it myself if I were gracing the cover of some fabulous magazine! I am talking about turning a model's 32-inch waist into a 24-inch waist. To me, that kind of Photoshop is deception and not art.
How do you feel about photo retouching? Do you think there is a line between acceptable and unacceptable?

Photo: Wanda Wulz, Cat + I, 1932. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987 Alinari/Art Resource © Wanda Wulz



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