We were all a little worried about Valia. She was the red-headed one, and ___________, our fashion ready-to-wear client, loved using Valia for their e-commerce photoshoots because she was a perfect sample-size two, with fine-china skin that glowed like a sulky, backlit angel’s on camera. She always posed the same way, with an impervious smirk-pout that said, “You want me because I do whatever I damn well please.” Did anyone really believe the Zipper-Cuff Faux Leather Jacket ($138) and Perfect Stretch Ebony Ankle Pant ($79.95, more colors available) gave her this confidence? ____________ apparently hoped so, and continued using Valia for the monthly web launches even after it started to seem like she was dying.
First, it was her hair. Her once-shiny, bouncy red curls went dull and lank, and no amount of brisk attendance from the stylists could help. Fix hair in post-production, the retouching notes said. So we, the retouchers, fluffed and shined up her hair. The next month, her skin was sallow and colorless except for the bluish, bruised-looking swatches beneath her sunken eyes. Even out skintone. Then, the whites of her eyes turned a flat, blood-shot beige. She looked on the verge of collapsing in every frame. Even her smirk-pout had lost its magnetism. But ____________’s shitty, overpriced, made-in-Vietnam clothes still looked tailor-made on her long, lean figure. So Brighten/add contrast to eyes, can you make lips fuller? was the prescribed treatment, rather than an IV nutrient drip and a month off. We continued to spend hours Photoshopping out her acute health crises for the sake of selling Leopard Print Eyelashed Layering Blouses ($59.95) to consumers who believed, on some level, that the bright-eyed, dew-complected model they zoomed in and out on was a depiction of a real person.
When I think about the nine months I spent as a full-time photo retoucher, solemnly poring over images of beautiful people, looking for flaws, and singing Fix it in post in my head to the tune of John Fogarty’s “Centerfield,” it makes my skin crawl. Not because I find the practice of retouching in advertising to be morally reprehensible, but because I don’t. Not in theory, anyway. In practice, it’s a slippery slope. So let’s talk about photoshoots. After a day of shooting, of models posing and stylists styling and adjusting and pinning and unpinning, the ground around the model’s feet gets a little dirty. Dust, stray hairs or threads, loosed buttons, t-pins all scatter on the floor. There isn’t always time to sweep up between shots, especially when cleaning the floor would require moving carpet/paper/fabric/props/etc, which could then require relighting the whole set. So the dust and hairs and t-pins might make it into the final shots. We should probably fix that in post, right? No big deal.
Okay, what about this sweater? The sample is the wrong color. This one got snagged on a hanger–fix it in post. This one needed to be pinned in back to make it look good from the front–can you take the pinholes out on the back view? And here, this particular shitty, made-in-Vietnam blouse looks weird on everybody, even after the stylist pinned it–can we just take out this part that sticks out over her hips so it looks like it actually fits? And while we’re at it, she has a great ass, but couldn’t it be a little more perfect? Could her narrow waist be narrower?
Or: she’s got a cat scratch on her arm or a zit on her forehead. That doesn’t belong in fashion photography–fix it in post. Take out her butterfly tattoo, fix her crooked teeth, her knobby elbows, her wonky pedicure. She has goosebumps–fix it in post. This nine-year old model for a preteen fashion brand hasn’t started shaving her legs yet, and frankly that’s not appealing on an eight-foot window banner–fix it in post.
And: there’s a glare from the sun on this outdoor picnic tableau. Fix it in post? Or there’s no sun, and you can’t very well have a picnic without sun, can you? Blue sky, sun on the flatwear. You can see the photographer’s reflection in the iced tea pitcher. Nobody ironed the tablecloth. Actually, we hate the color of the tablecloth. Can you make it white? And the iced tea. Could that be lemonade instead? Lemonade is statistically proven to sell more Patriotic Chip & Dip Trays ($17.95). Make it pink lemonade. And a gingham tablecloth.
As someone who still works in advertising creative, I know that retouching is everywhere. It has to be. Because people are clumsy, because products are crappy, sometimes it’s cloudy, sweaters don’t fit, because nothing works. Because when a consumer buys something, they’re not just buying the thing. They are–we are–buying a lotto ticket, a chance at future happiness with that thing as a part of our lives. That future happiness wouldn’t seem especially enticing if it looked just like our reality now. We want better. We want to look better, cook better, act better, be better, and in this sense, advertising is aspirational. Inspirational, even. There is nothing wrong with us imagining a better life, and nothing wrong with retailers catering to our imagination. We all know this is happening; we all know commercials are just fifteen-second movies, or, if you’re feeling cynical, fifteen-second lies. We accept it. We need it. Think of the last thing you bought. Why you bought it or whether or not you can even remember what it is belongs to its own conversation. But if you can, think of where it is. In the back of your closet, plunked unceremoniously on your already-overcrowded kitchen counter, still in its bag in the trunk of your car. That’s our reality. What kind of ad would that be, though?
Close-up: rumpled plastic bag in trunk of dusty, midsize sedan, next to a pair of (seldom used) running shoes and a compressed air pump.
Voice-over: This thing. Moderately useful but mostly forgettable.
True to life, but that’s not going to sell shit. The thing needs to seem better than that. It needs to look good. It needs to put its very best foot forward in order to make you want it, and that means no wrinkles in the tablecloth. What’s the difference, really, between ironing the tablecloth before the shoot, or Photoshopping out the wrinkles afterwards? What’s the difference between hiring a model with the most perfectly round ass in the universe versus Photoshopping the 99.5% perfect ass to be even better? As a feminist, I want to say of course there’s a difference. But in truth, I don’t think there is, and I don’t think Photoshop itself is a problem.
But reality and perfection exist on a spectrum. They help to define each other–without the opposite of realistic, what would realism even mean? The problem, then, is when we seek perfection as a means of erasing the reality. When perfection becomes the imaginary standard. It makes sense to want a wrinkle-free tablecloth in the ad. But extrapolated outward, wanting a wrinkle-free tablecloth in the ad becomes a judgment against wrinkled tablecloths in general, and that judgment implies wrinkled tablecloths are bad–or worse, not even valid. They don’t count. They practically don’t even exist. This picture-perfect picnic makes you feel bad about your completely regular picnic, because nothing that looks like any part of your life ever exists in the ad. And even though the tablecloth itself is just there in the background, trying to sell you something else, that falsely perfect tablecloth and every other object in every other advertising message you receive is there to scream in your face that you’re not good enough. That reality itself isn’t good enough, not now, and it never was. It becomes its own self-contained atmosphere: you buy more to prove to the universe that you are good enough, thereby validating the ad, making it a success, and guaranteeing that there will be more just like it. Most of the time, it’s way more subtle and a lot less sinister than that. But it’s still the same machine, cranking out frequencies that undermine you, and me, the models, the things for sale, the people who make the things, telling all of us, all of us, that we’re supposed to do better, even though the machine doesn’t know the first thing about us. Even though we made the machine. I just looked at _____________’s website, and I saw they’re still using Valia. She looks good. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s better. It just means the machine is working.