It sometimes feels like the increasingly visual nature of our interactions (have you had a day recently when everyone's nose wasn't facing a screen?) demand that we're always showing our best face.
Often, it's our literal face.
Whether we like it or not, we're being photographed constantly — by security cameras, by friends with phones, by our own mobile devices. And when those photos go online, we certainly don't want them to look horrible.
If we have any control of these photos, we may use app filters (welcome to the party, Instagram) and crop images creatively (countless chins have been eliminated on Facebook profile photos). Hey, let's smooth out that wayward blemish and get rid of that ugly fluorescent light in the corner of the photo while we're at it.
The tools that pros used for decades in darkrooms, then for subsequent decades in sophisticated software — the art of so-called "Photoshopping" — have become so ubiquitous you can get them for free on practically any computer, tablet, or smart phone. If you're on social networks, you probably see that these tools are being used frequently and horribly. The most egregious examples of bad Photoshopping can include missing limbs, faces that have been airbrushed to a plastic robot sheen, and red-eye elimination that results in a whole different eye color. Want some examples from magazines and Web sites? Visit the excellent Web site PSDisasters.com.
As exposed as I am to this kind of digital imagery every day, I was still taken aback when I spoke to a photographer who told me that it's not only common to alter faces by smoothing our wrinkles or eliminating flyaway hairs, it's expected. And it goes way beyond those simple fixes. Digital manipulation could mean the end of the "muffin top," the mound of abdomen flesh that sometimes appears to ride over pants (Gallaga said, self-consciously adjusting his shirt).
"I had a client tell me recently, ‘I have a muffin top in the photos, can you fix that?', " said Heather Banks, a photographer with 12 years of experience who owns Austin's Eclectic Images Photography. "That's not something I would have approached her about. Some things are kind of a touchy subject; you wait until the client asks."
Banks has trained for years to use digital tools to retouch photos carefully and professionally. "I think if it's done well, you can't tell at all." Many photographers, she says, employ retouching services and pass the fee on to their clients instead of doing it themselves.
Those who hire photographers, she says, have gotten much more savvy about the possibilities of photo manipulation and are more apt these days to request the service. "A lot of times, they'll casually say something during a photo shoot, like, ‘you can Photoshop that out.' "
Or, she said, they may playfully suggest during a wedding photo that a relative or member of the wedding party who's missing can just be inserted later. "That's not something that takes two minutes to do. It's getting the angle and the lighting right so it doesn't look like some random head was inserted," said Banks.
Making photos look natural while eliminating flaws is a lot of work. Banks once replaced the eyes on an otherwise perfect photo of three kids in which one of them was blinking. For friends who had a baby who was born sick and kept in an NICU, she was asked to digitally eliminate tubes and wires so the family would have a good photo of their newborn.
"It took several hours, but they were so grateful. I think retouching can be really beneficial when it's something like that," Banks said.
Where it becomes more obvious is when the tools are in the hands of someone less skilled. Banks says she's surprised when amateurs take professionally shot photos and add their own clumsy digital manipulation.
While we all expect that fashion magazines regularly employ over-the-top Photoshopping techniques, there's some debate online as to whether it's OK to alter photos of babies.
On a blog post I found called "Baby Airbrushing," a mom offers step-by-step instructions on how she filtered out her newborn daughter's baby acne in a photo. A before-and-after rollover image shows that it's the same photo of a beautiful baby, but with the skin color noticeably changed.
It may be that it's OK to airbrush out temporary flaws — dry skin, blemishes, stray hairs — while leaving permanent features like birthmarks, moles and chipped teeth, the features that make us who we are.
Which makes one wonder … is a muffin top considered permanent?
How much Photoshopping is too much may depend on whether you consider a photo to be art or documentation. As photographer Jerry Lodriguss says in an excellent blog post, "The Ethics of Photo Manipulation," "To answer these questions we must consider why we took the picture and what we are going to do with it. If the picture is taken for artistic purposes only, then pretty much anything goes because only aesthetic considerations come into play. If the photo was taken for documentary or journalistic reasons, then another set of ethical considerations come into play that have been developed by the photographer and the viewers of the image."
Our eyes may be able to tell intuitively when a photo stops looking "real." But what is real anyway, and will there come a point where our eyes are so easily deceived by better tools that we'll no longer be able to judge the validity of a portrait?
One thing seems clear to me: There will be bad Photoshopping for a long time to come, and when it benefits our own vanity, we might even like it.