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Photo Real: On Photoshop, Feminism, and Truth

While websites delight in publishing un-retouched outtakes of Lady Gaga, Lena Dunham, Faith Hill, and the like, it's not Photoshop that misleads us. Photos themselves are already lies.
Illustration by Molly Crabapple

Two weeks ago, Jezebel published un-retouched outtakes of Lady Gaga's Versace campaign.

Without Photoshop, Gaga's wig was more wig-like, her makeup flat beige, but she was the same skinny, strong-nosed chameleon that Stefani Germanotta has always been. The outtakes were not interesting, but showing celebrities without Photoshop is Jezebel's brand.

Jezebel exploded in popularity in 2007 by offering a $10,000 bounty for originals of Faith Hill's Redbook cover. The raw photos proved the magazine had liquefied the star's waist, softened her nasolabial folds, and brutalized her elbow into a bendy tube. This January, with more controversy, Jezebel paid another $10,000 for the originals of Lena Dunham's Vogue cover shoot. Those revealed only a tidied dress.


Jezebel's is a feminism that seeks its scapegoat in altered images. To refrain from Photoshop is girl-positive marketing gold. Dove Campaign for Real Beauty delights itself by putting out fake filters that chide retouchers. Magazines sign "No Photoshop" pledges. Clothing companies crow that they've never taken a clone stamp to their models' thighs.

To these feminists, Photoshop is to blame to unrealistic body standards, poor self-esteem, and anorexia in teenage girls. The campaign against Photoshop is the perfect cause for white, middle-class women whose primary problem is feeling their bodies do not match an increasingly surreal media ideal.

Photoshop, the belief goes, takes a true record of a moment and turns it into an oppressive lie.

But fuck Photoshop. Photos are already lies.

I'm a former model and current artist. I've learned this every second I've stared into the camera's insect eye.

Anyone who's been at a photo shoot knows that even untouched photos bear only the scantest resemblance to a subject. A photo is frozen. A model sweats and bloats, ages, and dies. Framing is a lie. Lighting is a lie. Cropping is a lie. When you suck in your stomach, or turn your head so the light washes out your laugh lines, you're lying as much as any liquefy tool. Untruth is baked into the process: Photographer Syreeta McFadden writes how the chemical makeup of some films is biased against dark skin tones. Even snapshots often don't look like you, because you are not static. You are a three-dimensional being, torn by time. Photos are pixel ghosts.


Photos are lies because art is a lie. Art is artifice. Art makes things as they are not—occasionally in the service of greater truths.

"The subject desires flattery, the viewer desires truth, the photographer must decide what each means," tweeted photographer Clayton Cubitt. To pose is to be vulnerable. Because of a photo's presumed reality, viewers experience the subject as the image-maker crafts her to be. The model's beauty can be the product, as in a fashion shoot. Other times, as in a Diane Arbus photo, the product is the model's freakishness, her marginalization, her pain. The relationship between photographer and model is war as often as love. The winner is the person who holds the release.

Those who see Photoshop as a misogynistic corruption of photography seldom have interesting ideas on what a feminist photo would be. DOVE's famous ad showing "Real Women" in their underwear (by "Real", they mean smooth-skinned, able-bodied, fleshy but not fat) is as wholesome as vitamin-enriched Wonderbread. Blogs denounce American Apparel for showing pubic hair, but if minimal Photoshop makes you feminist, they're as feminist as Audre Lorde.

Without photographic artifice, women who are conventionally perfect remain so. Photoshop's victim is supposed to be a "Real Girl," femme and insecure, who does not work in the sex, performance, or fashion industries. Does trickery-free hotness make her feel better or worse?


Photoshop is often done badly. In deadline hell, humans get spliced into chimeras. Models lose limbs, their ribcages are broken, and they gain additional thumbs. Photos in glossy magazines are often little more than paintings: Posed meatspace is one shade of paint. Perhaps impressionable girls would feel better if magazines printed drawings instead, to make unreality explicit. It would certainly be better for my bank account.

Photography was no sooner touched than it was retouched. Photoshop's scalpel and airbrush are the descendants of real tools used to pretty up printed photography. Back then, images of stars seldom ran untouched. Columbia Pictures plucked back Margarita Carmen Cansino's hairline to erase her Mexican heritage. She became Rita Hayworth. Now, she's immortal in silver gelatin. You don't notice how Vaseline, airbrush, and darkroom manipulation worked on her miraculous bone structure. Anything extraneous dissolved into black-and-white.

To get a "true" photo, you need to remove artifice. This means removing art. Art's opposite is bulk surveillance. Drones, CCTV, ultra-fast-ultra-high-res DSLR, our fingers stroking our iPhones or tapping at Google Glass. Omnipresent cameras suction up reality without curation. We're at the finest time in history to see stars, or anyone, photographed looking like hell.

For women, this surveillance is far harsher than posed artificiality. Under the regime of phone cams, you must be ever photo-ready. Never wrinkle your forehead. Never let your belly out. When Jezebel pays for leaks of raw photos, they mirror tabloids that mock famous cellulite. Noble justifications aside, both rip away a woman's control over her own image. Both profit off nonconsensual exposure. Behind both is a nasty whisper: "You pretended to be perfect. We caught you. You are not."


Like art, glamour begins as pretending. It's lips painted red, waist corseted thin. Historically, glamor was as distrusted as witchcraft. It could deceive a man into thinking the woman he chose was beautiful, fertile, and young. Beauty is born. Glamor is made. For a woman to remake herself was to sneak above her place.

Retouching is post-hoc glamor. Pixels shellac images like makeup on a face. From Photoshop to Instagram, each tech iteration has made retouching more democratic—and more despised. The self-facing phone cam is a master class in how posing affects perception. Media concern-trolls Photoshop's effect on teen girls. Meanwhile, teen girls use iPhone retouching apps to construct media of themselves.

A teen girl knows the lies behind photography best. When she takes selfies, she's teaching herself what were once trade secrets. Now she's the one who angles, crops, and blurs.

The girl she leaves onscreen is and is not girl who took the picture. Like all photos, the girl on screen is a shadow. She is a lovely mirage, to replace those that corporations once sold to her creator. She is false. But also, she is true.

Follow Molly Crabapple on Twitter.