Retouching Photos is So Old Skool, Yo

Mr. Colberg’s lucky old book find has lead to a decent day of reading for me. Obviously I’ve known that photo retouching is much, much older than the modern “that’s been photoshopped” outrages, but having an entire book now over 60 years old on how to do it adds a whole new level of fascinating to it.

Colberg highlighted one passage and I think it’s worth repeating here again, because I think it’s immensely true and it’s why I defend the use of photo retouching and manipulation in my own studio work:

The photographic lens is an instrument of great precision, but it does not discriminate between the essential and the unessential, and so when the lens is used in such a way as to give clear definition of detail where it is wanted, there is often equally clear definition of detail where it is not wanted. The lens does not create lines and wrinkles and blemishes on the face, but it merely reproduces them when they are there and makes these unimportant details just as prominent as the important ones. Therefore it is sometimes necessary to subdue such imperfections or to remove them entirely by means of the knife or the pencil.

This has never been truer than in digital, where a perfectly flat sensor plane (film, being uncurled celluloid was virtually never truly flat and therefore introduced inconsistencies and looser tolerances), lenses that are being improved through new materials and computer-aided designs to be incredibly sharper and with more resolving power, and with continually increasing pixel resolution and color fidelity all add together to create final pictures so unerring in how they represent reality that it can look absolutely artificial.

I’m unconvinced that retouching in the modern world doesn’t carry the stigma it does because digital imaging demands retouching so frequently to subvert the relentlessly mechanical feel of perfection. Because, it’s not like retouching is new or that we’re even doing it to more extremes. It’s long been established, and as this book evidences long considered a necessity in portraits. It’s just the fear that digital might be lying, as it’s easier to manipulate than analog mediums, that frightens us. Which, is really ironic since digital is far and beyond better at showing us the unflinching truth, which very few people I know want to address in quantity.

Anyway, hit the source link below to read Jorg’s article and go grab the book in question in PDF form for yourself. It’s a good read.

More Thoughts on Retouching

So, I know it’s popular right now to cry foul at any retouching and it hurts our ideas of self-perception and blah blah blah. And, by and large, I agree. That said, I usually come out on the side of supporting mild to moderate retouching, especially for studios purposes. How far is mild to moderate is–of course– the real issue of contention here. And it’s not a hard line, so I can’t define it. In general, I believe in allowing retouching to correct for stupid things introduced by bad posing or lighting. I believe in retouching as a way to convey what a person looked like when you were there, and not just how a frigid moment of compressed 2-D perception looks. I do not approve of this (give it a moment to load and it’ll animate between before and after: