if this is reality, I am not interested

a short essay about retouch

1_ Reality: information accumulation/selection

What do we see when beholding a face? We focus on major things: that’s how our vision works. Few accurate and relevant details, colour variation and vividness and an overall feeling of the situation we’re living. Our brains don’t need an accumulation of informations to mould a general idea of the reality in front of us. How does our camera work conversely? It focuses whatever we tell it to focus. It doesn’t need to build an overall feeling because it has all the time in the world to register every single tiny detail. And that time is ridiculously swift compared to us. This is the biggest difference between us and our media. What retouch should be about is making the camera’s vision more similar to our, somehow eliminating the accumulation of detail and information conveyed to us in the file. We don’t really notice single blemishes and blotches, stray hair in the middle of the face. We don’t have the time; we can’t and we don’t. So what’s the point of keeping all these elements? Do they tell something more about what we’re seeing? I don’t think so.

2_ I am the way, the truth and the unretouched

Today unretouched photos are flaunted as the genuine truth. We want to see unretouched things, we have all rights to see things unretouched, as they were, #nofilter. I think this has to do with our contemporary society grounded on the act of looking at images. We are fed by images constantly, we are told we can have access to everything, we can look at whatever we want to. We take a picture and we have to see it immediately and we have to make other people see it as well. There is this urge of seeing, relentlessly. We don’t accept any manipulation, any intermediation, any interpretation. We expect photography to faithfully register reality but this is a too much of a pretension. A photograph is a frame, a deception, a cut-out, a forcing, a statement, a vision. Retouch can be or not be part of it. And when it is, we have the duty of accepting it. No painter has been ever blamed for giving a dreamy, fake, embellished, distorted point of view on things. Or better put, some painters have been actually blamed when they weren’t supplying what the world expected to be a remarkable and “real” reality to be shown (from Modernism forth). Real is just a too narrow way to discern what’s remarkable and acceptable to show. We should have learned this lesson way back in time. Reality and accuracy are definitely not more important than my vision and my image and I won’t let anybody to order me about.

3_ Erasing out faces: an inconceivable violence

People associate retouch with erasing out faces and levelling bodies to a predictable standard. Not all retouch is like this but unfortunately it is the kind of retouch we mostly see around. Real skin replaced with a uniform (or non-uniform if one is more advanced) pattern is the major imperative. In the Italian documentary “Il corpo delle donne” Lorella Zanardo says: “Why can’t women appear with their own real faces anymore? Why is there no adult woman who is allowed to show her face? Why this humiliation? (…) Can these faces make relation possible? The face of the other implicates me, puts me into question, makes me immediately responsible. (…) A face conveys a message: absolute vulnerability.” Skin is not uniform and you end up thinking it should be somehow. So the retouch creates a silk-like mask to cover the actual face. I find this inconceivably violent as an act towards another human being. But this is not what retouch should be about.

4_ Please respect beauty. A short manual

When I read controversies about the possibility of leaving pictures unretouched as a means to respect the uniqueness of beauty I am just struck dumb. No way we will make fireworks with gun powder: we will always make deadly weapons. Is this the ludicrous subtext? From uniqueness of beauty to a product-like standardization. Is there anything left in the middle? I think there must be. We hate this glossy vision sold by society of consumption and yet we interiorised it so it became inherently part of us. The motto is: let’s get rid of perfection and beauty for they lead to unreality and standardization. I disagree: we do need beauty and unreality and there is no shame in the strive for perfection. I wish the matter could be tackled amorally and anarchically. And I wish our taste could radically evolve and we could unanimously agree on the fact that a glowing, doll-like face, with no wrinkles and pores is not beautiful neither perfect at all. It’s just a plastic product we can ditch or replace at any time. Both defectiveness and perfection challenge our gaze and curiously both can lead to beauty through the same path. One is not worth more than the other, there is no moral or acceptable path. We should just embrace beauty however it reveals itself.

  5_ The before-and-after online galleries mass loves  

Retouch is not about the before. It is, technically, but not conceptually. It’s all about the after, the final result. People love the before-and-after online galleries. They want to see what’s behind perfection! It is a comforting thought that sometimes perfection can’t be dismantled in small pieces and brought to the laboratory for the forensic analysis. Autopsy on a dream! Do we really need it? Of course it’s just the retouch doing tricks. Photographs would always tell the truth as it is. What if a photographer prepares a set of clean, bright beauty lights and shots with f/1.4 focusing on the eyes then? Is that an acceptable reality/deception instead? Would people like to see the before picture with flash torches turned off and f/11? Does it sound ridiculous? Yes, it does, because it is, actually.

6_ Guess what: Cindy Crawford is 50

Some months ago a Cindy Crawford retouch leeks came out to generate turmoil. Lots of people were very supportive arguing that she’s gorgeous for a woman of her age and that’s what you can tell from those unretouched shots. It is somehow heartwarming to read these comments but they totally miss the point in my humble/pretentious opinion. The picture I have seen was ugly and not because it was unretouched. It was ugly for everything that it conveyed. A woman doesn’t have to prove to be still perfect in her 50s, a woman can’t be forced to look like a 20 years old and embody a 20 years old like sensuality. A woman can’t be an immutable object of sex desire and sex desire can’t be shallowly shaped by the logics of capitalism, where everything has to be flawless, glossy and smooth. Sex is filthy and pure, it’s about the boundaries and transience of human bodies; it can’t be about fresh, red, compact and mellow flesh exposed at the butcher’s shop. They can’t force us to believe this is the only sex we should aim for, the most beautiful, the only possible sex. “Why is there no adult woman who is allowed to show her face? Why this humiliation?” Why aren’t adult women allowed to show themselves as they are? The point is not about Cindy Crawford still being attractive. The point is about the visual culture pushing women in their 50s to wear a black furry night gown showing her panty while dancing during a photoshoot. I am not censoring anything: people can do whatever they feel comfortable to do. I just wonder if this is the best way our society can represent an attractive woman in her 50s, being dependent on a retouch from ground up to make her aligned to the visual standard. Why can’t we just see adult women being adult. Why do we need timeless icons.

{note: this blog post was originally published in 2015}

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