Digital Retouching and Achieving the Impossible

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I’m no stranger to the art of digital retouching. In fact, I do a lot of what I call “natural enhancements” for my clients every time I create a portrait. Through lighting and camera technique I can eliminate or reduce wrinkles, downplay features that aren’t desirable — you name it, it can be enhanced. But, I believe there is a line between enhancing a person’s image and altering it. Yes, I always do my best to portray someone in a flattering light. But, I want the end result to look like them. I recently read a blog post, Photoshop Transformations and You, that really epitomizes the issue I am seeing far too frequently. I’ll repost the video below so you can watch for yourself. It’s really stunning to see the before and after versions of some of these models.

While I will generally lightly retouch wrinkles for my clients, it is only reluctantly, upon request, that I will consider more extensive “airbrushing.” I have on occasion even said “no” when a request went beyond my comfort level. My portraits are a reflection of real life. I want my clients to look real. Sure, I’ll touch up a bad case of acne any day of the week, and I’ll soften wrinkles… but remove them completely? They are a part of a person’s defining character. Without wrinkles, a person’s face looks plastic, molded, unnatural.

I have encountered people whose definition of self-worth is so wrapped up in their sense of self-beauty that to see a so-called “fat” or “ugly” picture of themselves is devastating. But, what would a smile look like without wrinkles? The corners of your mouth, eyes, and other parts of your face may crinkle up when you smile (I know mine do!) — but that’s normal. Having laugh lines isn’t a bad thing; that means you are a happy person.

It hurts my heart to show someone an image that I think is absolutely drop-dead beautiful (and a flattering portrayal), only to hear self-degrading comments from that person. I’m not talking about clients, really. We all do it, I know I don’t take compliments well either. But it’s ok to be happy with who we are, who we were made to be — as we are right now. Sure, real life doesn’t measure up to those idealist overly retouched images — but beauty is found in the accepting the “imperfections” that define each of us and make us who we are.

A book calledYou Are Special has been a hit for my toddler at bedtime the past month. It really captures the essence of this whole dilemma. Do we base our decisions regarding self-worth on what others think? What right do they have to judge us and define us? They have none. In The Incredibles, Dash’s mom tells him “everybody’s special” and Dash replies, “which is another way of saying, ‘nobody is.'” Everyone is NOT the same. To apply this concept to the self-image discussion: we are not all going to have flawless skin or retain a wrinkle-free face as we age. Our flaws are a part of us, yes. But they don’t have to restrict us, or define us. They give us character.

Just like this portrait of a senior with her shoes — we are all unique. Some more scuffed up by life than others, but that doesn’t decrease our worth, it actually shows our usefulness. Anyone remember The Velveteen Rabbit
? Okay, enough analogies for today. If you’re reading this and feel like I’m talking to you…please know that you are special, just the way you are.