Has “‘shopped!” changed our expectations of photography?

I am growing increasingly addicted to the Photoshop Disasters blog, not because of its outrageous images, but because of the comments that follow every post. Often, the first few comments are by skeptics who either don’t see the disaster or who believe that, strange as it may seem, the disaster can be explained as a real-life phenomenon or a photography quirk, not a bad Photoshop job. In one recent example, readers tracked down other images from the same photo shoot to argue that the effect was the result of peculiar lighting conditions rather than Photoshop. Others, of course, typically berate the skeptics for overlooking what they deem obvious, and bemoan the fact that the careless designer probably draws more pay than “experts like us.”

More recently, though, I’ve been noticing another common sentiment among some reader comments: the suggestion that ANY imaging disaster is a Photoshop Disaster. Last week, when a photo from Burda Fashion photo (right) showed a model who’s legs were twisted at improbable angles, three successive comments captured the genres I’m describing:

  1. holy mary, mother of god. Did she run away from the circus? (link)
  2. Scarily, this might not actually be shopped at all. My wife can do that. (link)
  3. photoshopped or not, something that weird is NOT a good advertisement. Unless its for a circus. (link)

The sentiment in the third comment is echoed by a few others:

  • It is, at least, an editing disaster. If it’s not ‘shopped, it’s still not gonna sell a lot of clothes. Their customers will be thinking in their subconscious, “If I buy what she’s got on, will my legs break?” (link)
  • …I can pick boogers from my nose and scratch my a** and so may she. The point is that nobody with a hint of sanity would photograph a model picking boogers from the nose or scratching the a** and sell it as “fashion photography.” … (link)

These types of comments do not represent the dominant voice, but they are quite frequent, and I think they tell us something about a changing relationship to the advertising image, particularly in fashion. Namely, now that anything can be “‘shopped” (ie, altered with Photoshop), there is no longer any excuse for a less than perfect final image, even if the original photo has problems or limitations. The distinction between a bad photograph and a bad photoshop job is collapsing into a singularity: bad image.

In a sense, because it is possible to ‘shop anything, then a bad photograph that makes it into a final comp is not a bad photograph – it’s a bad photoshop job, because somebody should have ‘shopped it. Anecdotally, I’m sure I’m not alone in having had the experience of framing a shot with my camera and wishing I could just move that street lamp a few feet to the right, but then thinking “meh, I’ll just ‘shop it out later.”

Has this attitude, about the maleability of digital images, led us to neurotically expect perfection of images while simultaneously distrusting all images, whether they are perfect or not? In the future, will any imperfection in advertising be considered a Photoshop Disaster? And will a perfect image be assumed to be ‘shopped?


 


 

Postscript:

I know these comments gloss over another really important topic related to advertising and Photoshop Disasters – womens bodies, and the use of Photoshop as a replacement or supplement to airbrushing, plastic surgery, and so on. Perhaps another post is in order – any takers?

Brad Weikel

Brad Weikel received his MA in Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) from Georgetown University in 2009. His thesis, "From Coding to Community: Iteration, Abstraction, and Open Source Software Development" argued that programming practices, particularly iterative workflows and abstraction models, can help explain both the success and struggles of open source software. His work was a technocentric complement to prior explanations from economists, lawyers, and political and cultural theorists. While writing his thesis, Brad blogged about his topic at OpenCulture.cc, where he has since continued blogging, more broudly, about collaborative production and the commons at large. Brad was Managing Editor of gnovis during the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 school years, and Creative Director in 2006/2007. He is currently the Web & Communications Coordinator for EarthRights International.