The Meaning of Photoshop

Whether France’s proposed Photoshop retouching notification law is a valuable idea in the interest of the public good or a misguided example of government overreaching, I can’t say. But I’m pretty sure that it’s a debate worth having. In case you hadn’t heard, earlier this month fifty politicians put a law in front of French parliament under which digitally manipulated images would bear the somewhat rueful label “Retouched photograph aimed at changing a person’s physical appearance.” The goal is essentially one of public health and consumer expectation: don’t try looking like this at home.

Image Makers

Back in the early nineties, when I first learned how to use Photoshop, it was very much a niche product, a professional tool with a learning curve steep enough that any widespread appeal seemed unlikely. Clearly, I underestimated its power; in the intervening years, the digital manipulation of photographic images has become ubiquitous, and Photoshop has become popularly synonymous with its practice. (The fact that its name so effectively tells its own story — Photoshop is in fact a kind of workshop where you transform your photos — undoubtedly played no small part in its colloquial success.)

Nowadays, nearly everyone knows what Photoshop is, and most people don’t hesitate to use it as a verb, e.g., “That magazine cover was clearly Photoshopped.” And I’d venture to guess that the number of people who use the software on a daily basis far exceeds the number of people who ever bought airbrushes, much less wielded them professionally. Which is to say that Photoshop has achieved an unprecedented level of success in shaping both what we see around us and how we understand what we see.

When in the pre-digital age the photographer Jean Paul Goude impossibly contorted Grace Jones’s body for her 1986 “Island Life” compilation album, it was something astonishing, a minor cultural landmark. Today, even the world’s most respected photographers will casually manipulate their own images with similar excessiveness. Some even turn their work over to the likes of Pascal Dangin, a high master of the craft, whom The New Yorker described as…

“…a sort of photo whisperer, able to coax possibilities, palettes, and shadings out of pictures that even the person who shot them may not have imagined possible.”

Though Dangin and his ilk operate at an elite level, that kind of artistic license is nevertheless so commonplace now that it’s barely noticed, which is part of the problem the French law proposes to address. It’s no secret that impossibly beautiful imagery of the human body can play a role in self esteem, of course, but whether a warning notice will be able to meaningfully counteract eating disorders and similar human dysfunctions is an open question.

Peeling Back Photoshop Layers

To me, what’s interesting about this issue is the fact that, after essentially allowing Photoshop and digital imaging of all kinds to subvert our ideas about reality for so long, we’re finally asking ourselves what the effect might be and how should we be dealing with those effects?

As a point of contrast, we’ve spent the better part of a decade and a half, at least, debating the vagaries of digital privacy. It’s a real issue, of course, and not one to be taken lightly. But compare the number of people who have had their privacy compromised to the sheer amount of manipulated, unreal and just plain fake imagery that assaults each of us every day, and the case for a more robust discussion about digital imaging looks like a pretty good one.

Whether the kind of warning label proposed in French parliament would be effective or not, whether it ever makes it into the marketplace or not, we can count it as progress that we’re starting to think about what Photoshop means. Well, I should say, the French are starting to think about it, anyway.

  1. Beautiful confrontation. And great way at looking towards things. But ultimately, I think it has to do more towards human emotions, likes and dislikes rather than just a tool. Photoshop is just a tool ultimately and like any other tool, what it can do is only limited by what you WANT to do with it.

  2. You’re correct in stating that this is a worthy topic of debate. I’m glad to see this is being discussed at all and I hope that a similar discussion will make its way to the states in the near future. However, considering that we don’t even care enough to label the genetically modified food we eat as such (which may or may not be as important as knowing who is or isn’t photoshoped), it will probably be a long time before this happens.

    We (USA folks) like photoshop’s role in the media too much for any real discussion. A recent example would be all the fuss about Sarah Palin not being touched up enough for her Time cover photo.

  3. Generally, the problem isn’t photoshop, it’s rooted in people. People, most people in the US that is to say, will believe anything put in front of them. A photoshopped ad, one with an illustration, or just bad/untruthful copy-writing. Treating the symptom doesn’t solve the problem that people are not skeptical consumers.

    I highly doubt that young girls and guys will stop trying to look like models because images aren’t photoshopped.

    The best thing that can come out of this debate is the education it provides. The outcome is almost moot.

  4. Photoshop has become ubiquitous. I suspect almost every photograph we see has been manipulated. A small warning to increase awareness is a great idea because I don’t believe that we are as aware of digital manipulation in photography as we are of it in other arts, like movies and music. I know that I am not.

    I saw this video a few years ago and I was honestly surprised.

    Increasing awareness of photo manipulation is important for reasons well beyond self esteem. Goverments and other political groups have started using it to manipulate public perception of events for political gain.


  5. I agree with Jeff – body issues aren’t going to stop just because of a label advising people that the photo isn’t real. I would assume that most people know images are photoshopped, as I do, but it doesn’t stop me wishing I had legs/stomach/skin like that. It’s a human trait, envy, and logic doesn’t always come into it.

    Having said that, there are some people, namely young pre-teen girls, who probably aren’t aware of retouching and this may go somewhere towards educating them in body image and hopefully stopping a lifetime of obsessing and worrying that they are not perfect.

  6. I agree also that there needs to be some debate on this subject. In the end, though, these notices would end up being “visual noise” just like the warning on a pack of cigarettes.

  7. This debate is worth having, but the truth of the matter is that magazines and advertising would create esteem issues even if Photoshop, or the airbrush itself, had never been invented.

    If you happen to run into a model on the subway you can see how much they differ from the normal population. They are so physically removed from the average person that they would create a skewed perception of what is desirable even without retouching.

    The benefit to this movement, to me, is that recognizing one part of an edifice to be false makes you examine the rest more closely. Maybe more people will begin to realize how distorted modern media has become.

    Then again, maybe not… America has more pandemic obesity problems than Europe, so the disconnect between model and viewer is even greater, but I haven’t heard anybody around here proposing such rules!

  8. I think the debate is a positive step forward. A lot of people don’t realise (especially young people) how much manipulation of photos exist in the fashion / media world.

  9. Haven’t photos been ‘altered’ for like, ever? Before photography, when you had a painter paint your portrait, it wasn’t an exact image, you were taller and better looking. Before digital, images were being airbrushed and negatives retouched left and right. All images are altered in one way or another before they’re published; they selectively crop unwanted environments or people, they are color corrected to fit a mood,blemishes are taken out. This has always happened, always. Not sure what the problem is now, why it needs addressing.

    The day I die, I want to be photoshopped.

  10. Juan – You are completely correct of course, but I think the issue here is not just the fact that the images are retouched, it’s how MUCH they are retouched, to the point where they create impossible body images in young people’s heads that they will probably never achieve.

    It’s not about cropping something out of the background here; it’s about airbrushing someone’s skin so it’s almost alien in it’s perfection, or destroying any evidence of cellulite on someone when they naturally have it. That’s why the problem needs addressing.

  11. As the father of a 5 and 3 year old daughter, I’ve already started telling them about magazine images “not being real”. My kids know I work on computers and we play around in PhotoShop and iPhoto all the time, making our skin green or yellow, adding dots, penciling on moustaches and stuff. My thought is that the more they know about how the stuff is created, the better their eye is in spotting it.

    My wife and I are always trying to figure out the best ways to teach our kids how to “read” the media. Let’s face it, Fox news (and others) should really come with some sort of “photoshopped” label as well.

    I agree that the idea put forth by the French is valid, but we all know labels don’t work. How many of you bought an album as kids just because it had “Parental Advisory” on it. I know I bought a bunch by some really shitty artists.

    Hopefully this law effort opens the dialog. I think that is really the intent.

  12. Julian, I think the way your educating your daughters is excellent.

    A grain of salt is whats needed here.

    I use photoshop almost everyday. I feel impervious to the photoshopped image. Some times I wonder how people can be naive enough to think that the images found in vouge and harpers (and they’re just the tip of the iceburg) are untouched, like the snaps that come off their digital point-and-shoot, then I realise, they have no idea about the process involved in manipulating an image.

    Teach people and they will stop being afraid, then we can all realistically appreciate retouching for what it is; an art-form.

  13. On my studio we refer to oure selves as ‘Satan’s little helpers’. We manipulate every image (and text) to help support the message. Ultimately that is the clients wish. The only limit is credibility. You can’t push it to much or people will notice.

  14. I am agree with Jeff Koromithe,i am also sure that problem isn’t photoshop, it’s rooted in people. A photoshopped ad, one with an illustration, or just bad/untruthful copy-writing.Treating the symptom doesn’t solve the problem.People should come out from debate and think straight because these debate outcome nothing.

  15. Excellent idea Julian, I have began teaching my 18month son the how and why of things to help shape his critical/analytical thinking. He absorbs information like a sponge, and the scary world is not to be trifled upon with ignorance or naivetж.

    I would love find a thorough, thoughtful and humorous galleria of disclaimers and alerts for news, ads, politics, governmental statements. Perhaps a good start would be, “…designed to distort the appearance of and misrepresent the nature of [blank], a consequence of this may be a distorted perception of reality and self in the viewer.”

    Now, the “why” part should probably be left to the viewer to interpret…

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