Photo Retouching Is the Digital Skincare That Equalizes Us All
Everyone’s face looks the same at 500 percent magnification: curvy and abstract, like a big fun skate park.
Photo by Tony Tulathimutte.
This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter about the highly personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Tony Tulathimutte tells us about the freaky pleasures of retouching people's zits. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. each Sunday evening, just when you likely need it most.
Recently I started taking author photos for my friends and students as a side gig, mostly to write off my new camera as a business expense. Writers often don’t get a lot of sunlight, but not in the way that gives them nice skin, and when you put them in front of a camera, they act like they’ve been hit by the Eye of Sauron. So I’ve also been doing a lot of digital retouching, and having a lot of weird fun with it.
Usually when I hear about photo retouching, it’s being criticized for promoting unrealistic beauty standards; apps like FaceTune and Meitu have automated and extended the practice to selfies, and most of the latest smartphone cameras make all kinds of secret adjustments to their photos the moment you snap them, so un-doctored photos might not even exist much longer. But when I’m working on a photo, I have no interest in making anyone paler or thinner. What I’m doing is more like digital skincare: I’m just over here trying to get writers to look less tired.
When I work on my photos, I’m mostly using the healing brush tool in Adobe Lightroom, which lets you take smoother skin from one part of the picture and graft it over another, in the effort to make it less fruit-textured: the cheeks, achenes of the nose, avocado escarpments of forehead and chin. Click on a blemish and it vanishes; if it made a little popping sound, it would be the most addictive video game known to God or man. Click and drag and you can trowel away a bruised eye bag. Sometimes the algorithm gets confused and transplants a nostril into a forehead, or an eye into a cheekbone, but it’s easy to fix. You can neutralize redness with a -45 green tint, +.5 exposure brush, and it’s nice to boost the eyes by bringing up the highlights and saturation a little. I will leave a zit in if I think it has personality. My Virgo self loves this tweaky stuff. I don't think there's much poetry behind it—nothing too symbolic, just a lot of consideration of blackheads and T-zones and flyaways.
Part of why I like retouching is that it’s so unlike me. I’m pathologically crafts-averse, to the point where I almost got held back in second grade because I wouldn’t touch Cray-Pas with my hands. (This was framed as proof of emotional immaturity.) I don’t know anything about framing or composition, not even enough to know how bad I am, which feels great. Maybe what I'm advocating isn’t so much photo retouching as being enthusiastically bad at things.
It’s true that I’m a scratcher and a picker; if I find a trace of an ingrown hair anywhere on my body, I will cancel my evening plans to spend a few luxurious hours prospecting it with two dirty fingernails. Then suddenly it’s 3 AM and I’m staring into a full-length mirror in the dark thinking about the time my mom said I didn’t have a girlfriend because I’m always touching my face. I don’t know what I have against it, but, as a work-from-home guy, that’s not my biggest problem with self-touching, and there are other ways I waste time staring at bodies on my computer.
The way you deal with a portrait you’re retouching is pretty much the opposite of watching porn. You use both hands, and it’s not easy to be horny while adjusting mask opacity over nose pores. You spend an hour or two surveying the same still picture, not just seeing but working over the whole thing inch by inch. Everyone’s face looks the same at 500 percent magnification: curvy and abstract, like a big fun skate park.
When I do my own face, I acquaint myself with new and interesting creases and shadows. I check to see if any of the picking damage I’ve done has stuck, and where it has, I try to undo it. Though I cannot say what effect this has had on my dating life, I keep the self-retouching light—because I don’t want to do the photo version of writing self-insert fanfic, and because my face and I have been enemies for so long, we’ve come to respect each other. We’re not so different, me and I. The more you brush away the temporary stuff—rashes, oily spots, sweater lint—the easier it is to see the deceptively stable person that’s there.