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Impossibly Beautiful?

Written By: Brigitte on April 3, 2011 No Comment

For years, sociologists, moms and therapists have been blaming magazines and advertisers for communicating to young women an impossibly high standard of beauty that makes normal mortals feel inadequate.

One brand has been watching and marketing to match. Make Up For Ever has launched a new campaign for their “HD Makeup” which cleverly stirs a little excitement and perhaps a bit of controversy, too. The core message: entirely unretouched images. No gimmicks or tricks. Real makeup making real beauty.

Make Up Forever's new "Not Retouched" campaign.

Is this a new direction that might be followed by other brands? Are we about to see our favorite models and celebrities scrubbed clean but unretouched, flawed but fab, just like us?

I don’t think so! First off, image manipulation and retouching has existed from the beginning of photography, from the days of the glass plate negatives in the mid-nineteen hundreds to the digital photography of today. George Hurrell, the great Hollywood portrait photographer of the 30’s and 40’s counted on it. He claimed that retouching allowed him more creative freedom and technical control while shooting. He suggested that all his stars be photographed without the heavy foundation makeup of the time because it looked unnatural and lifeless (this is a problem that still plagues photographers today). Hurrell found that It was much easier to erase a few wrinkles, freckles or blemishes than it was to improve a complexion that looked like stucco. Hey, they didn’t call it Pancake for nothing!

Joan Crawford, unretouched and retouched.

Joan Crawford, unretouched and retouched.

Before the digital revolution, retouching was not standard procedure for color images in editorial fashion and beauty magazine stories because it was too labor-intensive, and therefore too costly. Good color images depended on the skill of the photographer and the team – the usual problems had to be solved with good lighting, a good model, good hair and makeup, good styling, and good film handling. So when you look at vintage copies of Italian or French Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle etc., the color stories are the real deal. However, black and white prints were routinely spotted and cleaned up slightly before publication.

When I first visited the offices of Paris Vogue in the early eighties, I remember seeing two little ladies hunched over a desk in a corner of the art department, working with fine paintbrushes and inks like a pair of manuscript illuminators. I was amazed: some of the brushes looked like they were made of a single hair! It was their jobs to retouch the prints, when needed, of the magazine’s star photographers: Guy Bourdin, Horst and Helmut Newton.

In the realm of advertising – this time in New York – I was called in to advise the retouchers as to how to properly doctor a Revlon campaign I had worked on. This crew was really going for it, retouching with watercolor that was applied to the color transparency and then diffused with the help of a hairdryer!

So where did we go so wrong that a renowned makeup company can use the lack of retouching as a selling point?

I would like to think that before the advent of digital retouch more than fifteen years ago, any altering of a fashion/beauty picture was usually meant to “beautify” the image and fix minor technical issues.

Digital has made it easy to polish up every surface in every picture that is prepared for publication in print or online. Maybe it’s too easy. Now we can change the background, the color of the garment, lengthen the legs of the model, narrow the features of her face – the possibilities are endless, and so are the temptations to overdo it.

Retouching/manipulation looks like an automatic reflex these days, rather than an artistic intention. Because it’s possible, it’s being done. A digital crew with their monitors and workstations is often right there on the set, working along with the team. Going over the top isn’t the fault of anybody in particular: excessive retouch work might be the result of a client wanting too much “perfection”. A magazine might like a certain glamorized approach for it’s images. A photographer might like a deliberately “photoshopped” quality about his pictures. In the world of glamour-images we have gone from a light touch to manipulation that borders on illustration. A backlash should not come as a surprise. In a world of low-res You-Tube clips heralded by millions of people, with sweaty, teary, runny-nosed reality-show contestants breaking down on camera, the billboard image of a celebrity looking almost unrecognizable as an airbrushed, polished plastic mannequin endorsing a “natural” beauty product just might seem out of sync with the zeitgeist.

In the end, what do I think of Make Up For Ever’s marketing campaign? I think it’s clever, modern, and I’m sure it will make sense to a lot of women out there. As a makeup artist… I hope the product lives up to it’s hype!

link: Evolution Live Action, Yael Staav, USA, 2006 Running Time: 1 min

This revealing short film shows the graphic manipulation required to transform a model’s photograph into a magazine ad, as the face is retouched and reshaped to conform to an impossibly idealized image of beauty. Produced by Dove Campaign for Real Beauty

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