Something Greater

“That’s totally Photoshopped,” I looked across the grocery checkout line to see a teenage girl, pointing at the cover of a fashion magazine. And of course she was right. It’s no big secret anymore that everyone who’s anyone on the cover of anything has been nipped and tucked and airbrushed to oblivion. Or maybe even metamorphosized into something no longer human.

In a recent e-mail from a fellow wedding photographer, I was told, “I was prepping a wedding for my blog, doing some retouching, and I thought to myself, why am I shrinking her arms? They are big, but who cares? Then I thought, why am I retouching her face, too? It just made me think about this work I do and why I feel the need to make these edits.”

I completely identify with this photographer’s experience. We’re so conditioned to expect beauty to be one thing (How limiting — ONE thing!), and to have absolutely no compunction about digitally modifying someone’s face or body to achieve the look we think they should have had.

In On Beauty, I wrote primarily to my clients, discouraging them from the destructive obsession with looking like a magazine cover. But I think discussions about retouching and beauty are crucial for wedding and portrait photographers as well, because the shift in our clients’ thinking begins with us. When we retouch, we say to our clients, “You’re better this way.”

“You’re better with a flatter tummy.”
“You’re better with skinnier arms.”
“You’re better with a rounder bum.”
“You’re better without that scar.”

Who do we think we are?

It is absolutely our job, as photographers, to make our clients look their best. We should understand what angles draw attention to their faces, what light flatters their skin, what lenses best fit the mood or the moment or the model. There was a time when that raw skill was all there was. You either got it right in camera or not at all.

Now, though, we’re overburdened by our access to incredible post-production tools — tools that enhance our work in so many ways, but which also have been misused to grossly alter the unique men and women we photograph, to mangle their self-confidence, to put upon them a flawlessness that exists only through the manipulation of retouching.

And I get it! I want a smaller nose, people! I want straighter teeth! (Invisalign: one of these days, I’m coming for you!) But you know when I want these things the very most? It’s not when I’m with my friends and family; it’s not when I’m working hard on a project I care about; and it’s definitely not when I’m home by myself, listening to music and reading on our cozy couch. No, it’s when I engage in media that is loaded with made-up, plastic-skinned, all-the-same men and women, who don’t reflect the diverse, colorful, dynamic people I know in real life.

Right now, as wedding and portrait photographers, I believe we are on the forefront of a revolution in the photography industry, because we, more than any other photography professionals, are flooding the market with images of REAL people. And we have the ability — no, the responsibility —  to make amazing, raw, genuine photographs of the individuals who place themselves before our cameras.

And so we must strive for something greater than pretty pictures: to know our craft well, and to tell true stories of real beauty in all its incredible shapes, sizes, and colors.  This is our calling.

You can also read this piece on HuffPost.

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