Photographic Truth in Presentation

The company that makes Dove soap apparently has been engaged in a “natural beauty” type of campaign to maintain more honest body images of women in advertising. [The same should be said for men too–after all, most of us are not musclebound meatheads with high cheekbones, square jaws and six-pack abs.]

It is well-known that most purveyors of women’s fashion and skin-care products choose rail-thin young models–some anorexic or soon to be–and that photo editors unnaturally embellish their attributes by removing perceived blemishes such as moles, freckles, hair in the “wrong” places, hangnails, birthmarks, crooked toes from too much high-heel use, etc. The psychological implications of this “body image” issue are beyond my expertise and the scope of this entry, but there are some scientific resources on the subject. Instead, I’ll address the photographic implications of Dove’s campaign as it relates to outdoor (nature) photography.

Dove Canada, in their zeal to make model photographers and their ad agencies think about their digital enhancements and embellishments of models, developed a Photoshop action that, when clicked, undoes all previous changes to the original image. For those familiar with Photoshop, the action effectively performs a [CTRL] [ALT] [Z] (undo) over and over until there’s nothing left to undo. The action then was dropped on assorted fora for photo editors such as Reddit.

Presenting this action as an “aid for retouching” is deceptive and misleading, however, because it is a retouching-reversal bot. It is hypocritical for Dove Canada to incorporate deception as a vehicle in the fight against deception. It’s akin to using the devil’s means to do the Lord’s work–not cool.

That ethical problem aside, I can imagine uses for this in the world of outdoor/nature/storm photographers who digitally embellish their work to the hilt, creating what really is digital art but still passing it off as photography. Given the rampancy of alteration in the world of outdoor photography, part of me admittedly would cheer the annoyance brought upon purveyors of manipulated imagery by such an action.

The problem is fakery. Don’t like the telephone pole and wires in the foreground of a beautiful sunset? Photoshop it all out. Don’t like the low contrast of a tornado wrapped in rain behind a fuzzy storm base? Enhance it to the hilt and make the rain “go away”, or stick the tornado under a different storm’s base. Don’t like the hundreds of hair follicles visible on a real woman’s legs? Photoshop her skin impossibly shiny and smooth. All are variations of the same form of deception, a.k.a. dishonesty. Yes, dishonesty!

Now, in all fairness, Photoshopping *away* artifices is totally ethical…like dust specks on the lens or sensor, scan lines, glare flares, digital noise (camera or scanner), lens vignetting, excessive or insufficient color rendition by the camera or scanner, and other degradations introduced by the equipment and not part of the actual scene. It’s proper and honest to correct those things; they’re not real to begin with.

What crosses the line for me is simple: artifice. Deliberately introducing something that wasn’t there, or taking away something that was, is artifice. Artifice is deception. Deception is dishonesty.

The aim of photographic processing should be, quite simply, to render the composition the closest possible to how it actually appeared to the eyeballs of the photographer. Whether the subject is a human model, polar bears, field of wildflowers, or a tornadic supercell, the same mores of truth-in-presentation apply.


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