Monday, October 19, 2009

Reader Request: Effects of Photoshop

I asked for requests and some of you responded. Loyal reader Michael Costa asks what the impact of photoshopping is on the society. First, I admit my lack of expertise in the subject, but am intrigued by the question. Here's my go at it. I don't see it as all bad or good, but probably a mix of the two. It's also not a new problem. There has been controversy about picture editing since Abraham Lincoln. So let's divide it into two categories: editing for private use and editing for public use.

Editing for private use.

Imagine your just married and your professional photographs just arrived. But oh no, crazy uncle Dave took off his cummerbund too early and the balance of every shot is ruined. Lucky for you the photographer can photoshop the full suit in and save the day. No harm no foul. The picture is now a better representation of the reality of the moment during the ceremony.

Now imagine you're a high school student with class pictures coming up. You are given the option to edit out those unsightly blemishes for a small fee. Like a Cold War arms race, the increased use by photoshopping by your peers, compounds the pressure to do it yourself. You pay the money, the pictures come back and your less embarrassed than you would have been originally. No harm no foul. Or is there? What is the message this sends to students. Perfect skin isn't just for the magazine racks anymore, it's required in yearbooks across the country. It may decrease anxiety over picture day, but it could also increase insecurity in the days when you don't match the flawlessness of your picture. Twenty years later you look back on that picture and instead of being glad those pimply days are over, you are unrealistically nostalgic for the beauty of your youth.

Editing for public use.

When we are talking about editing reality, anything meant for the public is held to a different standard. The best example I could find is the Time magazine cover of O.J. Simpson. Compare it to the original mugshot in Newsweek and it is easy to see that journalists darkened the picture. I'm guessing to make to make him look more menacing by playing into racist notions of skin color. Editing reality in picture is the same as editing reality in printed word. Journalists are suppose to report the news, not influence it. Photoshopping models in magazines is reported enough to make those issues small. News editing images is a much bigger deal.


The way to differentiate between good and bad photoshopping is to ask why. Why are you doing it? Is the goal to deceive or to present reality better? But I'm not a Luddite and I embrace new technology's ability to improve our lives. We just need to question our motivation in altering the memory we are trying to save.

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You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.