As someone who spent the last two years working as a retoucher, I'm very sensitive to its use in magazines- while I personally worked on high-end art photographs of interiors and not people, I know all of the work that goes into every image we see in magazines now. There have always been retouchers, long before there were computers and Photoshop, but it has become less a slight manipulation of the image to make it more seamless and more a complete re-drawing of it. I'm sure we've all seen the various before & after photographs of celebrities that make the rounds on the Internet every so often, and from reading comments of blogs and talking to people I know that pretty much everyone thinks it has become too rampant. My friends who work as editors at fashion magazines will usually admit that it has all become rather ridiculous, but they usually feel as if nothing can be done about it- extreme photoshopping has become so accepted that it is just part of our culture now. David Bailey, the photographer of the Swingin' 60s who is still going strong, had some quite interesting thoughts about this in an interview published in the Guardian today.
Do you think fashion magazines are as good now?
They're different. The reason I did fashion was it was the only way to get paid to do anything creative. You couldn't support yourself as an "artist" – I hate that word. The only way you could be "arty" was as a fashion photographer, because it still had a certain amount of integrity involved. Now it's such a mass industry. They just churn it out. There's not much personality in it any more. You can't say, "That's a Helmut Newton picture", because you don't know who took the picture. "Who did the retouching?" is the question you ask. It makes mediocrity look good. And people who are really good, it makes them look mediocre, so it's a levelling out. It's a bit like socialism.
Who's really good and who's mediocre?
Oh I don't know. But most photographers just take pictures. They just come and go "click" – anyone can do that. Which is great – the more people that do that the better it is for me. If I take a picture, I know the person. I use plate cameras most of the time, so they're not looking at cameras, they're looking at me. I don't say "laugh". If I want them to laugh, I make them laugh. If I want them to be grumpy, I'll probably be rude to them.
Part of me agrees with him completely, in that it has become a rather soulless mass-market industry in many ways, but then there are the photographers and magazines who are still forging new paths creatively- ones who aren't using Photoshop as a tool to create "great" images, but are instead shooting truly beautiful works of art that just happen to be fashion photographs. Whether any of them will become as iconic as David Bailey's work we shall have to wait to see...