Around the World with Photoshop

Is there a difference between digital reproduction and manipulation?

I have a confession to make: I’ve been photoshopped. Alas, my portrait wasn’t going to end up on a glossy magazine cover. I was just renewing my Canadian passport and went to have my picture taken at my neighbourhood photography studio in Berlin. Instead of getting a new headshot, I got a lesson in the wonders of the digital darkroom.

You might be thinking what I was thinking as I looked at the results of my mini-shoot, magically transferred from the camera to the computer screen: ‘Why do passport shots always look so bad?’ Since no one is allowed to smile any more, the portraits look even more like mug shots. But my local photographer had a different question on his mind: ‘Do you really want to be reminded of that spot every time you travel?’

Before I could respond, he had banished my spot to digital oblivion. The trouble with Photoshop is that it’s hard to know when to stop, especially after enlarging a portrait 500% so a mole does end up looking like a mountain. After removing my spot, he lightened the circles under my eyes and then – tada! – added a rosy tone to my cheeks. And the wrinkle treatment! ‘Is this legal?’ I asked with a mixture of fear and hope. He shrugged incredulously, as if breaking the law were a minor disgrace compared with looking less than perfect. ‘It’s going to be a small picture anyway, so no one will be able to tell…’

If it’s worth making improvements that no one can detect on a portrait that no one sees except for passport control officers, then it’s hard to imagine what image doesn’t get altered today. In our increasingly photoshopped world, the difference between reality and photography is also growing. Last summer, the cosmetic giant L’Oréal – defending the digital makeover of Julia Roberts in one of its Lancôme advertisements – called the advert ‘an inspirational picture.’ Reality did not seem to be a consideration. The British watchdog Advertising Standards Authority banned the advert in the UK because L’Oréal could not release the portraits for a comparison: not between reality and photography but between photography and Photoshop.

Before the digital darkroom, photographers relied on retouchers who worked with their hands instead of a mouse. Although we still speak of ‘airbrushing’, that tool belongs to the disappearing era of analogue manipulation. For the researcher and photographer Fred Ritchin, our era of digital manipulation began before the creation of Photoshop in 1988. He cites the February 1982 cover of National Geographic which featured the pyramids in the Giza Necropolis in Egypt. The image was ‘electronically’ altered so that one pyramid appeared to sit right behind another (both fit nicely on the cover). As Ritchin reports, the magazine’s director of photography at the time Robert E. Gilka likened the use of this technique to limited nuclear warfare: ‘There ain’t none.’

Moving two pyramids is nothing compared to the Photoshop function of ‘layer comps’: combining many photographs of the same subject for one composition. Since no single shot is perfect, the best parts from different shots – this hand gesture, that facial expression – are added as different layers on top of each other and then fused into one final image. The process is a cross between playing paper dolls and assembling jigsaw puzzles, but there are often too many pieces which don’t fit precisely together. If some photographs look odd today, it’s due not only to retouching wrinkles but also to layer comps: trying to fit the arms akimbo from one shot with the hips from another.

Layer comps may be the true legacy of Photoshop, although we like to measure the difference between reality and photography, as if we were still living in the age of film photography. As Ritchin notes, programs like Microsoft’s Photosynth create 3-D compositions of one given site – like the Giza Necropolis – by combining the zillions of photographs taken by tourists from around the world and posted online for free use. The 3-D compositions can be printed or even navigated, just like Google’s Street View. Such programs take digital manipulation to a new collective level where photographs become the products of countless anonymous collaborators. In short: layer comps goes global.

The global reach of photography – a shot taken at Giza can end up just about anywhere in the world in next to no time – grounds this special issue on the medium. This issue also marks the first editorial collaboration between frieze d/e and frieze, which is focussing on the still life genre in photography. Far from disappearing, still life is thriving in the practices of photographing arrangements in a studio and using photographs as found objects for larger installations. In light of the German dimension of frieze d/e, readers might have expected a review of the great tradition of documentary photography, from Leipzig to Dusseldorf. Yet this issue explores the many fates of photographs on the move in both analogue and digital formats: from the family album reworked into paintings to the collection made out of online searches. The joint special issues – photography, still and moving – offer a comprehensive analysis of the medium today.

As for my spanking new passport, I know what to tell the officer at the border, should my modified mug shot cause any problems: ‘It’s an inspirational ID.’ Then again, if I can see all the sites online, I might not be inspired to make any more trips.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

Issue 3

First published in Issue 3

Winter 2011

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