Past Perfecting


Retouching is not merely servant to photography but is an artistic medium in its own right

Something remarkable has happened to our vision over the past 150 years, yet we can barely see it: Photo manipulation (more commonly known as retouching) has emerged as a form of visual communication in itself. Generally thought to be the technological servant of photography, retouching, in the broadest sense, also calls into question the veracity of photography, extending the realm of representation and threatening in some cases to supersede photography altogether as an art form all its own.

“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, but perhaps the two mediums need not be pitted against each other in all cases. More than ever, photographers can, like painters, choose to reject representation, and in clever ways with the aid of new tools. Historically, 19th century photo processes were a part of an evolution that was born of the painter’s hand — only now they were painting with light. In fact, Henry Peach Robinson, well known for his photo manipulations, began as a painter. His unique combination printing, which blended multiple negatives together, created a new way of altering the image and expanding photography’s creative potential.

The culture of retouching emerges from the contemporary camera’s unprecedented ability to capture minutia. A portrait taken will inevitably reveal all the little hairs that grow on an upper lip, each individual eye lash, and a chipped tooth in the lower corner of a smile. These characteristics in real life may not seem as perceivable to the naked eye, because the dynamic focus of an experience overshadows the importance of any of those details, which we now have the capacity to notice in a still image.

The brain’s short-term memory is extremely efficient, using its minimal bandwidth to absorb the information our visual cortex has learned is important. Viewing a static high-resolution digital photograph is considerably different. The brain it not constrained by the ever-changing nature of such an environment and is freed to take in and process visual content with a different type of criticality. As visual technology surpasses vision, it reveals more clearly how our sight only approximates reality, and how the high-resolution image may offer a “truer” version of reality — a hyperreality.

The media’s interest in photo manipulation has focused in on how it fails, fools, and of course, alludes. There is no lack of controversy surrounding, for example, the degree to which the human figure, especially the female form, is altered and how unspoken constructs are thereby reinforced in our daily visual diets. Photography, having flourished under capitalism, has become constrained by market demands, and as a result, the slippery, somatic landscape is far from resolved.

Photo manipulation is far from new, as Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, the aptly titled 2012 exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art curated by Mia Fineman, demonstrated. The show shed light on a wide range of darkroom trickery used before newer digital methods, showing that the ingenuity to falsify imagery did not stem merely from the convenience of digital fakery. Rather, photography and manipulation have developed hand in hand. The exhibition suggests an inherent desire to manipulate images, which served as a guidepost for the development of visual technology to come.

In response, Ken Johnson’s New York Times review of Faking It asked, “If photography cannot capture truth, what is it good for?” The question reflects the prevailing angst about photo manipulation in contemporary culture, hewing to a traditional view that the perceived value of a photograph was in its integrity as evidence. As the politicized unmasking of manipulated photos in recent decades has rendered tacit belief in the truth of images problematic, the collective “we” becomes simultaneously skeptical and complacent about how it views photography. A postmodern outlook encourages us to question the imagery we see on a daily basis, yet does little to breed the capability for truly understanding it.

But augmenting reality, the show implies, is as valid and universal an artistic aim as capturing it. The “hidden” processes of manipulation don’t merely serve photography or help it distort truth, but they build on photography as a pretext for independent aims. The show suggests how a methodology can blossom from practical implementation to creative expression, and that the dialogue surrounding this type of imagery should adjust in tandem. Given that technology expands the nuance of our vision language faster than audiences and even artists can keep up with – what Mark Hofer and Kathleen Owings Swan call “cultural lag” — this gap is precisely where the conversation about what sort of practices can constitute visual art should begin. Some artists seize upon manipulation to measure this gap, to subvert photographic expectations, if not exceed them.

To this end, Pieter Hugo makes direct connections between tool and subject. In There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends, he adjusts the individual color channels for each image to emphasize the complexion of his subject. As a result, they appear heavily marred by sun and scars, becoming the antithesis of more stereotypical, “airbrushed” images of magazines. His images becomes a signifier for a canon of beauty based on what is absent, not merely what is captured and enhanced.

Similarly, Asger Carlson, in his series Hester, begins with simply lit portraits and, with the aid of computer programs, sculpts new figures by stretching, distorting, and multiplying patches of skin. Their seemingly evidential frankness captures a subculture of distorted humanoids who have little need for ordinary anatomy. Limbs sprout and bulge impolitely into existence in the artist’s studio. For the Libertin DUNE No. 7 project, models in various degrees of undress balance between the tension of merging phalanxes and the allure of multiple pairs of painted lips, slyly selling them something sexy and sordid. His work highlights an underlying fantasy of perfection that society is not quite ready to part with. Our expectations of perfection—the perfect photo, the perfect body, the encouraged fantasy—are confronted by a demand to judge the methods of bringing that perfection about.

There is a logic to a photograph’s burden to be evidential, which carries over to constrain the more fantastical photography of, say, Annie Leibovitz, whose highly constructed tableaus still adhere to some loose definition of physics. She creates with a grandeur in mind that what she depicts could happen in the real world, even if we recognize that it didn’t. This work isn’t truly provocative, in terms of transcending representational expectations. It serves merely as a testament to a team of skillful technicians that are prepared to give us exactly what we want.

If there is to be a revival of the photograph as an artistic object, and not just as an evidential or commercial object, it will come through work that pushes the form and questions the elemental yet integral components of image making. We still want to believe photographs show us something about the world, the flattening of an environment into a two-dimensional plane that confers to our eyes a scene that somewhere must have existed. But photographic techniques have always rendered photos irreducibly subjective. Their art lies elsewhere.

Acknowledging manipulation as art emphasizes how we collectively collude in the verisimilitude of images. What makes an image true is not the fidelity of its reference to a verifiable outside reality, but instead, its reference to collective ideas of the real. This truth is no less objective for existing only in what we share, in the images we work together as a society, to sustain.