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Criminalizing Retouching

Posted: 03/16/09 07:55 PM ET

A video op-ed piece appeared this past week in the New York Times (NYTimes.com Op-Video: Sex, Lies and Photoshop: Why magazines should let readers know if images have been retouched, March 10, 2009) about whether to legislate or even criminalize retouching of images. Jesse Epstein, filmmaker and author of the article, reports on potential legislation in France where the Department of Health would mandate what images could be published, and how. The piece is voiced in terms of public service and right-to-know, but this is a dangerous and slippery slope. If, by law, we are not allowed to retouch images for advertising, are we then not allowed to retouch wedding images? What about the kids in high school with acne whose class pictures always had that dizzy glow to them as a result of the photo company helping them out a bit?

As someone who made his living this past decade as a retoucher, I am in favor of full disclosure of retouching practices, and believe there should be more public awareness of same. I have no problem telling anyone I meet that 100% of the images they see in print have been retouched. Sometimes that just means that the levels and colors have been altered and sometimes it is 20-30 rounds result in what I like to call "frankenstein's monster images" like the Lucky cover used as an example in the editorial.

The question Epstein does not ask is this: What would this knowing do for us? If, on the table of contents page, where they credit the clothes, stylist, and photographer of the cover shot, they also showed the four un-retouched images, would that solve the problem? Would criminalizing this behavior so that all we would be allowed to publish would be photos-as-is, solve the problem? Should we mandate that only models who conform to national medians of height, weight, and ethnic makeup be allowed to be photographed? And what about celebrities? On the same day that Epstein's piece appeared, Kelly Clarkson was on Good Morning America promoting her new album, and when they showed the cover she said that she didn't really look that good, that they had "photoshopped" her. Would that be enough? If celebrities had to issue disclaimers each time their images were photoshopped...

Retouching is not a new phenomenon. Since images were able to be reproduced with photographic techniques, they have been altered: from hand-tinted daguerrotypes to hand-tinting negatives to 'airbrushing.' Photoshop is now a verb as well as an adjective that refers to manipulation of images. Should the red-eye fixing tools be removed from picasa.com and iphoto?

We should certainly be wary, whenever we manipulate images, of the potential for abuse. There is an excellent case study of this type of excess aiding fascistic tendencies called, "The Commisar Vanishes" by David King. It documents instances in Stalin's Soviet empire where people were systematically removed from official images as they were eliminated, each new image becoming the new true fact. Thus images that are lies can become accepted as facts.

It seems like an oversimplification to conflate these two sets of images and intentions. Epstein seems more intent on discovering true images than exposing false images. My question is this: what is a True image? Is it a court portrait from antiquity, where the artist had to flatter the patron or face the blade? Is it an online-dating photo taken from a flattering angle with blemishes removed? Is it an AP news photo where the photographer has artfully composed the image in-camera, to capture a moment, and has edited out unwanted information? There's a big difference between eliminating a zit and eliminating a person, and we should be wary of giving power to others to make such distinctions -- and to base laws upon the distinctions they make, and so determine what information is or isn't good for us.


Eli is the Digital Imaging Manager at SPIN Magazine.