Chatting photoshop, ‘perfection’ and the ethics of being a fashion photographer.
Before I entered the industry, I didn’t really know anything about fashion/beauty images, and what they go through before they’re published. I’d seen that influential Dove video, and in my adolescence was taught that fashion advertising is highly unrealistic due to photoshopping, airbrushing, stretching etc. When I started modelling I met the people who do the photoshopping and was comforted to know that it truly isn’t all like that; the aim usually isn’t ‘make the consumer feel bad about themselves and bully them into spending money’. Sometimes it’s just about making something beautiful.
Eddie is someone who has in all the time I’ve known him approached his work with a conscience and a scrupulous awareness of our work’s impact on its audience. I’ve had countless insightful discussions with him on this topic over the last 18 months. (I guess you could say we spend a lot of time together). We had this one over 3 different coffees in 3 different cities: It started with cortados at Bluebottle LA, continued with lattes at Berkelouw Books Sydney and wrapped up this month at Sweatshop in Brooklyn, New York.
So here is Eddie New, peeking out from behind the lens to share his thoughts with us, about specific retouching tools, how they are/should be used and the ethical responsibility of a fashion photographer.
So, how long have you been in the industry?
About 4 years.
How has your style evolved over those 4 years?
My work’s become a little bit more raw than it used to be. A little bit more stripped back, I’m probably not as heavy on the retouching as I used to be. I guess my concept of beauty is kind of changing as I get older and hopefully my work is reflecting that.
Do you retouch all your work?
Yep. I think the word retouching gets really misused though. I think people need to be careful when they are talking about this topic. A lot of people say we should ban photoshop or retouching right? Well Photoshop is just a program and retouching is just the process that happens to an image after it’s taken. When I take a digital photo I upload it onto my computer, I put it into photoshop to check everything is correct. I might correct the colours, check the sharpness, um.. resize or crop the image, maybe make it black and white. All of that is retouching. So the majority of shots will be retouched in [that] sense. [But that doesn’t necessarily] mean going in and manipulating a model’s skin or appearance.
The truth is before I saw them being used on my photos, I didn’t know what any of the tools on photoshop actually do. And I’m still a bit rocky. So for those of us who have no clue, could you define the following terms for me?
Airbrushing is the process of using a paint or brush tool to add a layer on top of the skin to soften it and remove texture.
Do you airbrush your photos?
These days very seldom will I touch the airbrushing tool. I used to airbrush way too much. I’ve found other techniques to do a similar thing without removing any sort of texture. The times you would airbrush the model’s skin would be say… if she’s hot or cold, and the skin gets blotchy.
So liquefying is a tool on photoshop that you use to I guess warp or change the shape of something.
When will you liquefy a model’s body or facial features?
Pretty much never. I’d never liquefy a model’s face or the shape of her body. But if you’re shooting a commercial job, and the sample is not fitting properly on the model I’ll go in and liquefy the shape of the dress to correct the sample.
So no stretching?
No I don’t like to do it, I have been asked to more than once. And some clients and retouchers will go ahead and do it themselves after you’ve handed over the shots. The only time I would ever alter a body is if it’s to correct lens distortion on the image, e.g. if the model’s arm looks warped because it’s on the edge of a shot. All these tools have relevant uses!
So what would you remove/add/alter when retouching a model’s…face for example?
Um, for me it’s really about [keeping] anything that is natural, whether it be a beauty spot or a mole or wrinkles or bags under the eyes. I really think that it’s important to let someone’s character come through their face, I think that’s what makes it interesting.
I don’t have a problem with removing a pimple off a model’s face, if she’s just come in on the day and she’s broken out, I’m happy to remove that because it’s not permanent. It’s really about asking that question every time you remove something – ‘Should I be removing this?
I can verify you do that. I’ve seen you go through that mental battle in your head in front of the computer, edit and re-edit things, because you’re making sure not to cross that line.
(laughs) get out of my head, creep!
Get away from my face at 400x zoom! (laughs)
Your photos are so beautiful, I almost don’t believe you. To what do you attribute the flattering way in which you portray people?
Thanks! A big part of it is light. Understanding and reading light is a really important part of photography. I like to keep things really natural whenever I can, so often it’s just shooting in front of a window. It’s just important to step back and visually read how the light is looking before you shoot. Um, I think the other part is having a real connection with the person you’re shooting. You can’t really fake that.
Something I sometimes grapple with is whether I am contributing to a culture of negative body image by working in this industry. How do you feel about that?
She’s bringing out the big guns now! (laughs)
I’d like to think not at all. I do think that unrealistic photoshopping is an epidemic these days. We have a really warped perception of what beauty is. We are surrounded by images on billboards and campaigns on TV where skin is flawless and models have a ‘perfect’ body (whatever that means) and I think young photographers want to emulate that and recreate what they think they’re ‘supposed’ to be creating. When I was starting that’s probably where my head was at. But as you get older you realise that you don’t have to do that just because the big guys are doing it.
It’s up to the individual to choose how they play a part in all this. If a client asks me to liquefy a body to unrealistic dimensions I’m going to say no. That might cause problems, the client might not use me again, but that’s something I can do to stand up, It’s my decision and at the end of the day you’re only in charge of your own decisions.
What do you think we can be doing in order to combat negative body image and all the negative things that seem to stem from our work?
I think we all need to stop labelling things. You know, you’ve got ‘plus size models’ and then you’ve got ‘skinny models’, why can’t models just be models? I think beauty is beauty. Let’s just think: ‘Who are the people we’re trying to shoot for? Who are the people that are going to buy these clothes?’ I think we should try to find a way to incorporate all forms of beauty with less labelling and less [extremity]. Like at the moment we are seeing a lot of ‘real women have curves’ but really, that’s just skinny shaming, like are thin women not real? (laughs).
I’m real! I swear! I exist!!!
I think the focus should be on promoting heath regardless of size rather than shaming the opposite. All we can do inside the industry is promote the right things. Just keep doing our jobs and do it with an ethical mind and a conscience. I think if we start putting out more natural photos, promoting shots where the skin’s not ‘perfect’ but embrace natural beauty, it’s gonna slowly start to change the perception of what beauty is. I think that’s how we stop this ridiculous trend of looking for flawlessness which is not beauty. At all.
There’s only one more thing I want to ask you today, what is beauty to you?
Oh gosh…. Right now, I think beauty is imperfection. Beauty is unique.
A big thankyou to Eddie for sitting down with me over this three times, and for sticking it to the man in proving you don’t have to be unethical to create beautiful things :).