I’ve been taking self-portraits for the entire two years that I’ve been doing photography — that’s why I bought a DSLR camera to begin with, actually. I’ve Photoshopped every single photo of myself I’ve ever presented on Flickr, on my web site, on LinkedIn, Reddit — anywhere. I’m not ashamed of that.
A few years ago, the editor-in-chief of Self magazine, Lucy Danziger, defended the retouching they did for a Kelly Clarkson cover by saying that they wanted her to look her personal best. She continued:
“Think about your photographs and what you want them to convey. And go ahead and be confident in every shot, in every moment. Because the truest beauty is the kind that comes from within.”
Several readers thought that was bullshit. Hell, I thought it was bullshit at the time, five years ago, when I wasn’t subjecting myself to monthly, weekly, sometimes daily photo shoots. Photographing yourself, or being photographed, puts you in a vulnerable position, particularly as a woman in America. I very, very rarely let anyone else photograph me — no one knows my angles like I do. No one will light things the way I would want them lit. No one wants me to pose in a way that will be flattering to my body or face (“Say cheese!” WHY? It makes my jaw look weird!). No one will bother retouching them or even just going through the basic steps of making sure the exposure and contrast look OK. And everyone uses flash, but no one uses it well. When other people take pictures of me, they shoot in JPEG, do nothing to make the photos look nice, and just blithely upload them onto Facebook. Unless it’s a really novel occasion — like, say, the family reunion I went to this summer — I really would prefer to stay out of everyone’s pictures, thanks.
That’s not me being a camera snob — I’m an amateur by any concrete measure. I’ve never been paid for my work, partially because I don’t want to be paid for my work, because it allows me to both fuck up and take my time, or, in other words, learn. I love taking photographs, and I’m pretty good at it, but I’m not a dick about other people’s skills or lack of skills with a camera. I just care about making sure that I am perceived in the way I would like to be perceived.
For me, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I must look thin. I don’t hide or edit out the cellulite or stretch marks on my legs, or the fold in my waist when I turn my torso, although I do choose the poses and photos in which the lines of my body are as smooth as possible. But I do correct my skin tone; my skin can be practically translucent, or look yellow, and I’ve inherited the bags that were permanently under my grandmother’s eyes. I do go absolutely nuts with editing out pimples, which can sometimes be completely rampant on my face (thanks, hormones). I frequently make my eyelashes look longer and correct my makeup.
Part of it is a sort of compulsive desire for tidiness: I want things to look clean. I don’t take photos to mark events or memories; I keep my memories in my head. I take photos of beautiful, novel, ephemeral things. And when I take photos of myself, I take them to capture a mood or a sentiment, more often than not. It’s not that different with celebrity photoshoots: They’re marketing something — sometimes a movie, sometimes clothes, sometimes themselves. They’re not there to show you how they look in real life, they’re there to capture a mood that is representative of whatever they’re trying to sell you.
So photo editors treat those women — and men — as beautiful objects. The problem with treating a human body as a marketable object is that most products are mass-manufactured. You can choose the most perfect-looking object of the bunch and take a picture of it. You can’t do that with people: There’s only one Kelly Clarkson, or Rebecca Brink, and you have to work with what you’re given and make a few changes here and there to make the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing picture you can.
And there are, after all, aesthetic standards by which you can judge a picture. The way lines, colors, and shapes move the eye matter. Take, for example, Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”: The eye is drawn upward to the French flag at the zenith of a pyramid formed by the body of Liberty and the corpses underneath her. The pyramid shape in the painting is emphasized by lighting that almost looks like a spotlight on Liberty. He did that intentionally — to portray the glory of the French Revolution. Product, fashion, and art photography might not always have the same lofty moral goals, but the use of line, color, and composition to create of movement, stillness, softness, brightness — that can convey ideas in photographs, even if the idea is just “this burger really IS healthy, we swear!” or “I’m happy with my life, buy my record to hear about it!”
It’s not to say that I’m not thrilled to see Keira Knightley’s slightly lopsided boobs inInterview, because they’re a more accurate representation of real-world boobs than we generally get to see in the media. It’s not to say that I think magazines and advertisers should be paring women down to impossible proportions. It’s not to say that I think that the political motive behind the push for real bodies in advertisements and media is wrong; I agree with it. But there are compulsive people like me who exist in the world who want very much to look a very particular way in photographs. I want to be sure that the conversation about photo retouching doesn’t flat-out reject the validity of that nitpickiness, or desire for order, or for creative control, or for control of messaging and image.
In other words, it’s not always submission to patriarchal beauty standards that makes us want to retouch our photos, or photos of ourselves. Sometimes it’s just us, who we are; our messy, unretouched personalities.
Reprinted with permission from The Frisky.