Regulating Photoshop: A Hazy Proposition, Not A Solution

While U.K. equalities minister Lynne Featherstone raised the issue of excessive Photoshop and image-manipulation by the fashion industry again this weekend, a lot of things about her plans remain unclear.

Featherstone — whose comments included a passing reference to the "fabulous" Christina Hendricks, which has already inspired plenty of mockery among headline writers — wants to convene a series of meetings this fall with the editors of fashion magazines and the advertising executives who oversee the production of most of the highly manipulated images we consume daily. Reports the Guardian:

The first will focus on airbrushing, which Featherstone argues is contributing to "the dreadful pressure that young people, girls and women come under to conform to completely unachievable body stereotypes".

She will push for a Kitemark or health warning on airbrushed photographs, warning viewers that they are not real.

A Kitemark is a trademark used in the U.K. that certifies a given object meets certain minimum safety standards. Kitemarks are generally included on products like smoke alarms and bicycle helmets — things where the user's physical safety is paramount. The Kitemark is rarely, if ever, used to distinguish products that have been vetted for their potential effects on a consumer's mental health. It should be noted that no product is required to carry a Kitemark in order to be sold, but that the mark's endorsement is widely trusted.

So from this explanation, it sounds like the minister is calling for a system of regulation for image manipulation that will be essentially voluntary — and one for which the exact standards of what is and is not a valid image have yet to be enumerated.

Opponents to these kinds of regulatory schemes tend to follow one of two lines of reasoning. There's the high-minded argument about freedom of the press and freedom of speech — that no government should play any role in regulating what should be a matter for editorial discretion — and there's the nitty-gritty argument about the potential inefficiency and/or subjectivity of any such anti-Photoshop guidelines.

The first point is fair, as far as it goes — a very high burden of truth should be met before any kind of speech should be limited — but so much research has been completed that the negative effects of being bombarded with highly manipulated, perfected images are, at this point, fairly well-established. And besides, what Featherstone is proposing is essentially a voluntary industry code. The second point is where things get squishy. Photographers argue that digital post-production tools mimic darkroom techniques, and that consumers aren't aware of the extent to which all fashion photography has always been manipulated. As Jean-Baptiste Mondino said:

The photos of old Hollywood? Retouched! The iconic image of Che Guevara? Retouched! All the photos taken by Richard Avedon of Marilyn Monroe? Retouched! And all of this before today's software existed, of course. Legs were lengthened using a wide angle; skins were smoothed through overexposure.

This is true, but it's also disingenuous. While most Photoshop effects are in fact named for lower-tech procedures that have been performed since the dawn of photography — airbrushing, dodging and burning, and collage have all been traditionally used to alter fashion images — the reality is that these techniques were so labor- and time-intensive that they were rarely used consistently and in combination. What used to take hours in a darkroom can now be done in seconds. What used to be a one-shot procedure can now be reverted, re-attempted, undone, re-done, and tweaked again and again as necessary. Never before have images been so highly malleable, so easily "perfectable." What used to be exceptional and difficult has now been made easy — and it's become the norm.

That isn't to say that there aren't a lot of gray areas. Would Featherstone propose that any picture that had been altered carry a disclaimer? What about removing a skin blemish or fixing a flyaway hair in post-production? What about smoothing over small scars or cellulite? What about minimizing rolls of skin where a model's body bends? What about fixing a wrinkle in a shirt? What about smoothing a visible vein? What about minimizing a funny shadow? What about taking an inch off someone's waist? What about four?

Some of these things are probably mostly okay, in that they are changes that don't automatically make a picture unfaithful to how a person really looks, whereas some of them probably are mostly not okay, in that they part company with reality pretty abruptly. Some of them may be all right individually, but taken together, result in an image that falls into the uncanny valley. The truth is that the reason we edit photos — "edit" both in terms of selecting the best shots and "edit" in terms of altering them after the fact — is because the human eye and brain perform an editing role for us already; a picture taken at the wrong moment, in the wrong light, or from the wrong angle won't reflect reality, and it's not a betrayal of this debate or these important issues to acknowledge that, sometimes, Photoshop can be used to make people look more like themselves. (In real life, you'd never focus on that stray hair — so why should it be left there to distract us in the picture?) Fundamentally, any "standards" the British fashion industry and the government come up with will have to be fairly flexible, and ultimately subjective.

What wouldn't be a subjective change, though, and what underlies everything, is the very real need for a wider range of body types to be valorized in the fashion industry. If models came in more varieties than just "straight-size" and — very occasionally — "plus-size," and Photoshops of Horrors were nipped in the bud, then flipping through a fashion magazine might not be the inculcation into self-hatred it is for so many of us. Deciding what constitutes an acceptable or honest use of Photoshop is hard; booking a wider variety of models is comparatively straightforward and just as positive a step.

Fashion Industry Faces Airbrushing Clampdown [Guardian]