Re-touch me not


Re-touch me not

New Delhi : But there is no ’natural photograph’ in the glamour business.

It had great potential as a controversy, but it turned out to be fake news. We The Media played truant again. Elle magazine did not photoshop Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s picture for the cover of its December issue to make her look fairer. Nor did she threaten to sue Elle.

The disclaimer (reaffirmed by both Elle’s editor-in-chief, Nonita Kalra, a columnist with this magazine, and Rai’s publicist) could prompt us to ask the question: Why the big fuss about Photoshop, when we all — cover girls,

editors and readers — have agreed to create and accept a commercial idea of beauty?

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and the cover girl brigade eagerly agree to pose as the face of magazine covers. Nobody puts a gun to their heads; in fact,their publicists often call editors to “discuss covers”, knowing their clients will benefit from them. If any of them sues a magazine for photoshopping her face or body, or to accuse someone of “retouching” (which is a norm), she will only contradict herself. They all know that the photograph is “taken care of”, both in the way it is shot and the way it is handled post-production.

No one in the world of glamour goes to an air-conditioned studio to be photographed by a fashion photographer, assisted by an army of stylists and make-up people in order to do a service to the life of the natural photograph. The untouched “real” image died long back. What we have now is the new commercial ideal. If it’s for a fairness cream, the photograph is lightened. If it is for a soap, the photographed is cleansed. If it is for make-up, the photograph is caked.

The mandate of all such photographs is rather simple: fair and conventionally pretty with a chiselled nose, blemish-free skin, a full bosom, slender waist, long, shapely legs. If it is Bollywood, it is even more reductive. Blow-dried hair with soft waves or hair extensions, nude lipstick, false eyelashes, silicone implants in some cases (duly dusted by lots of bronzer) and coloured, cosmetic lenses.Pretty but not radical. Have we ever seen Persis Khambatta’s bald look in Star Trek on a recent cover? A black model or a plus-sized heroine? Every woman must be slim, every eye bag must be deflated, every breast plumped up, every zit erased. First by the make-up artist who applies layers of concealer, then by the photographer who softens the lighting and finally by the retouch artist, who is ordered: “Baaki sab theek kar dena.”

He is not our villain, this retouch guy on the night shift. The fashion photograph has been manipulated long

before he steps in. The Photoshop artist only airbrushes away the remaining notions of reality, taking away imperfection, reducing individuality to a collective notion

of beauty.

“Photoshop is a redundant debate. I think we have been culturally compromised by corporations and brands dictating the idea of beauty. A plasticised, silicone-enhanced impossibly perfect Barbie doll has been successfully planted on billboards and covers,” says photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta, who adds that perfection is not only boring but human beings are not supposed to be perfect. Dasgupta feels that cover girls are like mannequins, there is no individual voice that suggests the idea of the emancipated woman.

If the commercialised idea of beauty was unfair, according to feminist Naomi Wolf who went against it in The Beauty Myth, for artists like Pascal Dangin it is good news. Emancipated women would leave him unemployed. A premier retoucher of photographs in the US, he is an adept plumper of breasts and shrinker of pores. “Using the principles of anatomy and perspective, he is able to smooth a blemish or a blip (anomalies as he calls them) with a painterly subtlety,” wrote Lauren Collins in The New Yorker. Called the photo whisperer, “he coaxes possibilities out of colour palettes,” fixing a shoulder blade here, a hip’s curve there.

Thanks to the competition people like Dangin now unleash, small and big photo labs around the world seek retouch artists. Call them fixers of anomalies or Photoshop villains, theirs is a job much in demand. In India, wedding photographs are photoshopped in labs, as are others. You get a menu with a price list — boob enhancement, lip fixing, hair styling, eye lightening, skin smoothing. These labs make money by making people look like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and company.

The tragedy about the much-photographed Aishwarya is not whether her pictures are lightened or retouched but that we don’t know what one of the most beautiful women in the world really looks like. Each photograph is someone else’s idea of her beauty; a fashion magazine’s, a cosmetic company’s, a watch brand’s or a beauty soap’s. Why, even the retouch artist’s. The slew of magazine covers she did last year only proves the point.

Same difference.