Photographic Enhancements – history & acceptability in portraiture?

Retouching – a personal view of portrait enhancement

Most people are probably aware that many photographic images that we see in magazines, social media, movies, etc. are retouched or manipulated to some extent; often with the intent of flattering the sitter. Here I would like to consider the history of portraiture & image portrayal, take a brief look at today’s digital darkroom process and decide upon my view of a positive way to tackle any negative issues.

Executive Summary or TLDR

Humans have a long history of enhancing their looks with cosmetics & almost as long a history of doing so in art. The human body is a beautiful expression of our evolutionary heritage, art an expression of our mind’s eye. Why can we not enjoy & appreciate both whilst still keeping a grip on reality? We need to accept & embrace our individual imperfections whilst enjoying the array of aesthetic beauty in front of us. Perhaps improved education about art history & personal expression could help. Perhaps also an increased awareness of how imagery is used to make us desire a product, would help avoid some unrealistic expectations. Surely the answer lies in awareness & education.

History of Portraiture & Flattery

So let’s consider the history of portrait enhancements.

The Painters

Portraiture is estimated to have been around for at least 5000 years and a person’s desire to be represented at their best is probably as old as humans’ existence. Not too big a leap then, to suggest that flattery in images has been around for millennia. Flattery doesn’t just exist in visual media either. Take Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, “The Faerie Queene” – which, amongst other things, spends much effort flattering Elizabeth I; to such good effect that she granted the author a generous pension for the rest of his life.

Few people could afford to have their portraits painted but those who could were often well aware that the importance of the portrait runs much further than mere vanity. To be idolised by ones subjects, respected by fellow dignitaries; this gives influence & with it an enhancement of ones power. Let’s take Isabella, Marchesa of Mantua – an influential lady in renaissance Europe, as an example. In 1529 she was fortunate enough to employ the great painter Titian to produce a portrait of her. The painting, Isabella in Red, is unfortunately lost to us but before its loss Rubens painted a reproduction of it (see below). Isabella was most displeased with the Titian portrait (quite flattering though I suspect it is) and commissioned Titian to produce a 2nd portrait displaying the now 60 something year old as she might have been when younger. This second portrait is known as Isabella in Black and this time Isabella approved of the portrait.

It is only natural that as portraits became more available to people in general, that the majority should wish to follow suit with beautiful portrayals of themselves. Of course not all portraits were generous to the sitter, some could be derogatory for political reasons perhaps. Other portraits might be commissioned as a realistic representation of a suitor that one has not yet met; here the intent might be realism, as with the portrait of Henry VII that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Enter Photography

It is in to this world, where a mass desire for portraiture could be easily triggered that photography bravely stepped forward. In the year of 1839 Frenchman Louis Daguerre described his process for photography. In that same year American lamp maker Robert Cornelius took the first portrait photograph (and yes, it was a selfie). It took about half a century before photography could truly be brought to many, with the release of early Kodak cameras in the 1880’s and the first Brownie box in 1900.

Early photographers had had to fight against a general mistrust of this new medium. They had sought to photograph similar dignitaries to those that were painted & this helped to overcome early suspicions of the portrait photographer. But by 1900 photography was firmly embraced by people in many countries. With the introduction of Kodak’s Brownie box the medium could now reach many families & individuals.

An example of one substantial project from the early days is Edward Curtis‘ 40,000 photograph depiction of Native Americans & their life. Started in 1906, the project grew in size & scope to include audio recordings of the languages & much written documentation. It took over 20 years of Curtis’ life. Without his photography much of these cultures’ details would not have been recorded.

Returning to our main topic, with the introduction of photography the tools changed but the intent did not. Instead of the artist’s brush, the tools of flattery / character portrayal became the photographer’s use of light and the developer’s skill within the darkroom. Different film, different developer, the shading of selected parts of the image whilst exposing to print – all these methods can adjust the final printed image.

And then we went digital…

In the modern digital era more of us than ever before have access to photographic equipment. The quality of image that most people’s smart phones can produce, way exceeds that of a typical 1970’s Kodak 126 camera. We can take selfies galore, manipulate them with digital filters & share them online.

The portrait masters still create bewilderingly beautiful images be they in paint, chemical film or digital film.

To quote Henri Cartier-Bresson:

"To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life."

Over the last 120 or so years photography has come a long way, techniques developed, equipment revolutionised but the basics remain the same. Here is not the place for a detailed discussion of those techniques and developments; they are for another article or several! However I would like to show a basic workflow for enhancing a portrait …

Today’s Digital Process

So as an example lets take a very straightforward photograph of yours truly. How might we go about enhancing it? Let’s not be too drastic, just a few tweaks to make it a little more flattering.

The Original

This is how the shot looks straight out of the camera. The shot was a very basic selfie, single flash-head fired through a beauty dish, dark background and a smiling pose.

Original

The key light is great but we might have benefitted from a fill light to the left hand side. I’m wearing very little makeup (eyeliner, mascara & lipstick), that’s normal since I’m not a fan of foundation et al. So where do we go next?

Stage 1

In this next image I’ve softened the general lines on my face and reduced the emphasis of the crow’s feet. I’ve also given my eyebrows a little trim in readiness for applying some pencil to them. It’s subtle but already quite noticeable. It should be noted that these ‘tweaks’ to my image might just as well have been achieved with the application of foundation & powder.

Stage 1

Stages 2,3 & 4

Now I have adjusted the general highlights & shadows plus given myself a little touch of a tan, that was Stage 2. In Stage 3 I’ve applied more makeup including stronger eyeliner, eyeshadow, touched up lipstick, a little blusher & highlighter.

In stage 4, I have moved my attention to the hair, adding punch to the image via enhancement of the reds & extra shine from the highlights. This adds some more fun to the image, a contrast to the dark background and besides I like red hair 🙂
Stage 5

The finishing touches.

Finished Image

In this final stage I’ve cleaned the lipstick off my teeth (an annoying trait that I seem to have inherited from my Mum!), lifted the lighting & textures of my satin chemise and produced a softening glow to the image in general by using a ‘screen’ layer in software.

The Negative Issues

Centuries ago few people had access to widespread media, let alone the funds to have a personal portrait. Whilst food & shelter was probably folk’s main concern, image has always had a place in our hearts, even if only to assist in finding companionship & a mate. Did a bit of rouge on the lips ever harm a girl’s chances?

But these days we’re surrounded by images that are not ‘realistic’. Many people feel pressure to have a perfect image; rippling muscles, curvy silhouette, blemish free symmetrical face – whatever, it seems to be causing problems.

Last year (2017) the Royal Society for Public Health undertook a study of young people’s online social media habits and how their habits effected their psychological well being. Unsurprisingly they found various problems, amongst them was an increased anxiety about their own physical appearance. Thus amongst the ‘solutions’ proposed was a call for social media providers to highlight photos of people that are digitally manipulated.

That is just one example of a reputable study that has found genuine problems in this area, if you look you’ll find many more.

My Opinions

I have known & been friendly with various people who suffer from eating disorders, have low self-esteem or just simply feel depressed about themselves. Some of their issues may well have been caused or exacerbated by the bombardment with ‘perfect’ personal images & lifestyles.

I do believe that there is an ongoing issue with more people having anxiety about their personal appearance and not just the younger of our society. However, I don’t believe that this suggestion is much of a solution, it is something of a band aid going on a scratched arm that has been amputated from its owner. (Please excuse the gory metaphor.)

Let me explain. Portraiture is as old as the hills, so is flattery. Make-up is used by many (female & male) to ‘improve’ our analogue selves. Social media is part of a much larger social system which exposes us to idealised images. Corporate entities use many visual imagery techniques to ‘sell’ us the idea of a perfect self in a perfect lifestyle – if only we bought their product. Flagging the occasional image on social media tackles but a small part of a greater malaise in society. How many advertisers will be happy to put a warning on their billboards? Should people have to post that they have had cosmetic surgery to enhance themselves or to state that they are wearing make up to look more attractive? I just don’t think the various proposed solutions that I see are either workable or getting to the root of the problem.

Summary

Humans have a long history of enhancing their looks with cosmetics & almost as long a history of doing so in art. The human body is a beautiful expression of our evolutionary heritage, art an expression of our mind’s eye. Why can we not enjoy & appreciate both whilst still keeping a grip on reality? We need to accept & embrace our individual imperfections whilst enjoying the array of aesthetic beauty in front of us. Perhaps improved education about art history & personal expression could help. Perhaps also an increased awareness of how imagery is used to make us desire a product, would help avoid some unrealistic expectations. Surely the answer lies in awareness & education.

 

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