An Open Letter To Photoshop Critics

I see the magazine workin’ that Photoshop. We know that shit ain’t real, come on now, make it stop
— Meghan Trainor, All About That Bass

Edit: After discussing this post with readers, I feel my argument was not well made. I will revisit this issue in the future when I've developed my position further but I will leave the original post here. I encourage thoughtful discussion on blog topics, we are all learning together in life.

Understanding two sides of an issue and not being sure of which side I am on is a particularly difficult position to be in when trying to discuss a sensitive topic.

Over the past few years, there has been a pushback against image manipulation of portraits online, in ads, and in fashion magazines. I understand the sentiment that this movement has in the context of a generation plagued with body image issues, and I applaud the efforts of activists who demonstrate positive body image lifestyles.

However, I have some respectful criticisms of this pro-body image, anti-Photoshop approach.

How much Photoshop is too much?

There was a petition created by eigth grader Julia Bluhm asking Seventeen magazine to show a spread of unaltered images each month. Julia states in the petition “That’s why I’m asking Seventeen Magazine to commit to printing one unaltered -- real -- photo spread per month. I want to see regular girls that look like me in a magazine that’s supposed to be for me.”

This is a certainly a noble cause for Julia to take up, but there is an issue with her petition.

Seventeen wasn’t altering model’s bodies.

Now, I place no blame on Julia for this misconception. It is unreasonable to expect that she could tell the difference between manipulated and unmanipulated photos. It does show how the use of excessive Photoshop is often assumed even when editors are conservative in its use.

I’m sure many of you have seen the Dove commercial above, depicting extreme amounts of photo manipulation. I can agree that the editing in this example is far too excessive, but it is also intended to be that way.

In practice, I have considerable doubt that manipulation of this amount occurs anywhere outside of questionable advertisements. I also have issues with the ad being from Dove. Dove has long pushed the natural-beauty ad campaign while its sibling company Axe continues to promote the complete opposite. That is a separate issue from just Photoshop though.

All images are edited to varying degrees. When a camera captures an image in JPEG format, which is a very common setting, it applies sharpening, saturation, white-balance, and contrast adjustments before the image is even written to the memory card. The ethical concern with image editing is how much creates a harmful, unrealistic representation.

I don’t think there is a correct answer here. People are going to accept varying levels of editing, just like people use varying amounts of makeup. A little or a lot of editing does not make an image right or wrong. It is the perception and the expectations we take from those images that causes the problem.

As a portrait photographer, I have to take my clients expectations along with my own style into consideration when creating a portrait. Some clients like as little manipulation as possible, and others would never hire me again if I didn’t remove blemishes.

Poor body image is an incredibly complex issue with no simple solution. However, I feel an unfair amount of blame has been placed on Photoshop and image manipulation. Many individuals are unable to determine when unrealistic images are made, and some definitions of excessive editing are too restricting and ignore the varying audience expectations.

I’ll leave you with a few before and after images that I have edited. Do you think the editing is too much?  Please share your thoughts in the comments. If you would like a bit more of this, check out The Ethics of Photoshop: Part I.