Pixel perfect: Why you shouldn't believe your eyes when it comes to those glossy images

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Almost every cover of every glossy magazine and every advertisement on every billboard is retouched for our consumption. Are we being conned? Or do we all know the score? As Dove's acclaimed 'real women' campaign stirs a new controversy, Susannah Frankel reports

If Oscar Wilde were alive today, he would doubtless still be basking in the glory of his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Never has society's pursuit of youth and beauty been so voracious, after all. And never has technological intervention – from plastic surgery to anti-ageing cosmetics – been available to so many so early in their lives.

While facelifts were formerly the preserve of the forty- or even fiftysomething, today any self-respecting It girl will be eagerly anticipating her first nip and tuck before she hits 30, and may well have indulged in a spot of Botox by her early twenties.

However, while the protagonist of Wilde's prophetic tale resisted the twin forces of time and gravity, leaving the portrait in his attic to deal with that undesirable process for him, in today's world, even our documented images refuse to age.

"I like a certain amount of retouching, like anybody," Elizabeth Hurley declared last month, on the launch of her latest swimwear press campaign, which featured the 42-year-old actor and producer looking more toned and trim than ever. "We all like to get rid of spots and shadows under our eyes."

Not only did she have no qualms about the enhancement of her immaculate physique in professionally shot images, but she also went as far as to subject her personal holiday snaps to computer wizardry. "I don't have professional Photoshop [the most widely used image manipulation software], just the one that comes with your camera," she said blithely. "Every time I download my holiday snaps, I always go over them. Just the red eye and colour enhancement. I don't do any slimming because you need a silly program, but the colour enhancement is heaven."

While Hurley's candour raised some eyebrows, more controversially, this week it emerged that at least some of the images in an iconic advertising campaign for Dove cosmetics may have been subjected to the retoucher's art.

In a profile in its 12 May issue, the august New Yorker magazine claimed that Pascal Dangin, the world's prime practitioner of computer retouching but little-known outside fashion circles, had brought his skills to bear on some of the Dove images, undermining the central premise of the campaign – that "older women" needed no enhancement to be beautiful.

"I mentioned the Dove campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual 'real women' in their undergarments," wrote The New Yorker's Lauren Collins. "It turned out it was a Dangin job. 'Do you know how much retouching was done on that?' he asked. 'But it was great to do, a challenge to keep everyone's skin and face showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.'"

It would be naive to think that this revelation would pass unnoticed. However, only serving to complicate an already complex issue, the assertion was factually blurred – even incorrect. Dove and its parent company Unilever were quick to point out that Dangin didn't have anything to do with the Dove campaign featuring "lumpier-than-usual women in their undergarments" at all. That was originally – and famously – photographed by the London-based Rankin, without the retoucher's input. Instead, Dangin had worked with his long-time client Annie Leibovitz on an earlier Dove "ProAge" campaign for the US market.

For its part, Dove claims to have had an understanding with Leibovitz that the photographs would not be retouched per se, and that the only "post-production" techniques employed were the removal of dust from the film and some minor colour correction. Leibovitz confirmed this, and Dangin himself said: "The recent article published in The New Yorker incorrectly implies that I retouched the images in connection with the Dove 'real women' ad. I only worked on the Dove ProAge campaign taken by Annie Leibovitz, and was directed only to remove dust and do colour correction – both the integrity of the photographs and the women's natural beauty were maintained."

Yet the truth here may be somewhat counterintuitive. Unretouched photographs can actually distort reality rather than reveal it. When someone stands or sits in front of the camera for a long time, blood will rush to the extremities, creating a redder density under the skin, which under intense lights becomes very visible. Equally, if someone is seated on one leg in front of a light with the knee of the other leg raised to their chin (as in the best-known of the Dove images in question) that leg will appear much brighter than the seated leg. So at least some tone and density correction are applied – to make the image more beautiful, yes, but not in an attempt to deceive.

However one chooses to look at it, everything from dust removal and colour correction to elongating limbs and exaggerating cheekbones and body parts does constitute retouching. It's a murky, complex business, carried out at best by people with heightened aesthetic sensibilities and great expertise, and at worst by heavy-handed individuals prepared, for instance, to take an unwanted party out of a picture entirely. Perhaps the most notorious example of this was Stalin's removal of political rivals – in particular Trotsky – from photos for propaganda purposes. Indeed, it's the unscrupulous amateurs and propagandists who give the profession a bad name and cause us to be suspicious of what is, in capable hands, a subtle art form. Small wonder that the world of the retoucher usually stays under wraps.

In the end, whether we understand – or indeed trust – the mindset behind photographic post-production, the fact remains that almost every image in glossy magazines, billboard campaigns and newspapers (yes, even The Independent) is doctored in some fashion before it reaches print; whether it be a crop to zoom in on the unsightly nose of a political figure, or the removal of a pimple on a model's cheek. The adage that "the camera never lies" is as unreliable now as it ever was, and image manipulation begins long before the likes of Dangin and his ilk get their PowerMacs fired up, courtesy of the photographers themselves.

"People say I'm a photographer, but that doesn't sound correct to me any more," says Nick Knight. "But if they say I'm a computer operator, which, of course, I'm not, that's not right either." Knight is responsible for dozens of global advertising campaigns and pioneering fashion editorials, and for the front page of this newspaper's special RED issue in 2006, which saw Kate Moss's skin transformed from white to black.

Knight is known for the fact that the post-production of his images is often as important as the creation of the original photograph. "There is a photographic element that most, although not all, of my work goes through. Manipulation is a slightly charged word, though, because it implies deceit. A skilled photographer totally manipulates the reality they have around them. I believe our perception of reality is shaped almost entirely around our fears and our emotional response to what is about to happen," he says.

"I have a big problem with saying that photography is a good medium with which to record reality, because I know it isn't. I know the eye doesn't work the same way the lens does; we scan things differently. Also, a photograph captures one moment, it's not a narrative and, of course, we live our lives sequentially, in a series of fragmented moments."

He's right, of course. Until colour film was introduced, photojournalists were capturing the world in black and white, when clearly that is not the reality.

Even magazines that profess disapproval of manipulated images are not beyond bending these principles. In June 1994, Time magazine's cover featured a startling image of OJ Simpson. With his haggard features underexposed, Simpson looks every bit the "American Tragedy" he is held up to be by the coverline. Had the image been correctly exposed, removing shadows, highlighting his eyes but nothing more, it would have told a very different story.

Extreme examples of retouching in journalism include a 1982 National Geographic cover, in which editors photographically moved two Egyptian pyramids closer together so that they would fit on the vertical page. In 2005, when Martha Stewart's release from prison featured on the cover of Newsweek, her face was placed on a slimmer woman's body to suggest that she had lost weight.

Post-production work is nothing new, going back almost to the birth of photography and the hand-tinting of daguerreo-types. Then, no professional photographer's studio was complete without highly paid artists employed to finish a print by hand.

Almost a century on, in July and September 1917, two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, claimed they'd taken pictures of each other playing with fairies near the Yorkshire village of Cottingley. They said they had seen the creatures on a near-daily basis and borrowed Elsie's father's camera to prove it. According to their account, when Mr Wright developed the pictures, they showed amorphous white shapes that, he argued, looked more like strange birds. His daughter stuck to her story, which was documented by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Coming of the Fairies in 1921. It wasn't until 1982 that the cousins admitted they had faked the first four photographs at least. The two women claimed that the images had been mocked up as a retort to adults who had laughed at their beliefs.

Equally controversially perhaps – although much less romantic – in 2003, Kate Winslet protested that the digital manipulation of her image on the cover of GQ to make her seem leaner was "excessive". "She has done many magazine covers and knows that once you've done the photos it's out of her control," her agent said at the time, protesting that Winslet, who had publicly urged women to take pride in their curves, had not been complicit in the process. "Once you shoot them, the magazine has them and can do what they will with them, and the actor is really not part of that approval process," her agent added.

To say that Winslet is a rarity would be an understatement. Madonna's appearance on the cover of this month's Vanity Fair attracted attention due to the smooth appearance of her usually muscular arms. (Only a fool would suggest that this star hands over the control of any photographs of her divine person, which she knows is hers to be protected and perfected at all costs.)

The current vogue for retouching in fashion imagery at least can be explained as a reaction to the photography of the mid-1990s, exemplified by the work of Juergen Teller, David Sims, Corinne Day and Nigel Shafran – all of whom were reacting in turn to the highly stylised, glamorised work of the 1980s. Teller, Sims, Day, Shafran et al believed that beauty lay in imperfection and in the character – preferably idiosyncratic – of their favourite models, whom they photographed in their own less-than-salubrious apartments, as opposed to exotic locations or elaborate studio sets.

The genre was dubbed "real life" photography. It is a measure, perhaps, of the subjectivity of this so-called reality that detractors famously labelled it "heroin chic". Now, the tide has turned again. Photographers such as Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Steven Meisel and more (not household names, but their monopoly of fashion advertising makes their work recognisable) favour a more polished end result, and one retouched, depending on the way you look at it, to the point of perfection (or indeed alienation).

The British Fashion Council's Model Health Inquiry, set up in response to outrage at the size – or lack of it – of catwalk models, and presided over by Baroness Kingsmill, concluded that the manipulation of fashion imagery in particular could "perpetuate an unachievable aesthetic". Any number of experts on anorexia appear to support this view.

If that were the case, however, why would Kate Moss's retouched image be any more damaging than those of, say, Marilyn Monroe in her heyday? Monroe may never have been a size zero, but anyone labouring under the delusion that they might aspire to the untouchable beauty of any of her film stills (all of them airbrushed) would find themselves sorely disappointed.

In the end, although this is the aspect of retouching that today attracts the most attention and opprobrium, it is far from the full story. We may not, like Elizabeth Hurley, go to the trouble of using Photoshop to tidy up our holiday snaps. But which of us is not guilty of editing them, of casting aside the pictures showing extra chins, blotchy skin and wobbly bits? Of making sure that only the loveliest, happiest, glossiest versions of reality are left behind for posterity?

Even better than the real thing: how to spot a retouch

* Airbrushing is the common parlance for the process of digital photo-manipulation, but it is also referred to as retouching, Photoshopping and clearing up

* Almost anything can be achieved in a photograph with Adobe's Photoshop program; dresses can change colour, figures can slim down or fatten up, skin tone can even out, buildings can move closer to each other and people can disappear. Other programs used by professional image-manipulators include Paint Shop Pro, Corel Photopaint and Paint.NET.

* On any commercial picture, a normal amount of retouching may include anything from evening out skin-tone, removing blemishes and dark circles under the eyes, "refining" a jawline, slimming down limbs, and adding shine to eyes, hair and jewellery.

* Often, it's easy to tell when an image has been Photoshopped, because the skin is so flawless that it looks unreal (in the fashion industry, heavy-handed airbrushing of skin is known as the "plastic fantastic" look). Other ways of spotting fakery are to look at where the light falls – fiddling with photos can make them look too "flat". Another way is to look in the subject's eyes to see where the light is coming from to see if it matches shadows elsewhere. If a model's features look too symmetrical, say insiders, the picture probably doesn't tell the whole story. But in the hands of a very good retoucher, there may be no sign of airbrushing at all.

Esther Walker

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