#Poppygate scandal – when is photoshop appropriate?

Every photograph we encounter these days, whether on the side of a bus, in our local newspaper or on a computer screen has been retouched or manipulated digitally in some way, most likely using Photoshop. This is not a new phenomenon, in fact image manipulation followed very swiftly after the invention of photography in 1839.  People wondered how a medium that could render forms and textures with such exquisite detail not show colour, so photographers began using manual intervention with oil paint and powdered pigmentation to bring added life into the images for their customers. In the 19th Century there was even a trend for images to feature fake decapitation, and of course, there was the famous Cottingley Fairies. These were a series of five images taken by two young girls Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. They showed the girls posing in a garden with magical sprite like creatures. They had many fooled, even the crime writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a spiritualist, was enthralled by them, and for many years they were accepted as genuine until the 1980s, when the not so young girls, admitted they were faked using cardboard cut-outs.

When I started out as a picture editor in 2002, we were still receiving glossy prints from photo agencies and scanning them into the computer and examining transparencies on a light box using a magnifying glass. Then – digital manipulation was in its infancy and required large expenditure in outsourced laboratories to achieve what now, we could do in Photoshop in 30 minutes.

As glossy magazine and celebrity culture took hold, many celebrities and their agents use Photoshop to control their public image. Often seeking picture approval and dealing directly with photographers to get the desired effect. I’m a big fan of this digital marvel. I’ve been using it to produce high spec fashion and beauty shoots for over a decade and sometimes it can comfort those people feeling less comfortable about being in front of a camera and achieve a nice polished look. I don’t see any issues with removing red-eye, lens blemishes or smoothing some blotchy skin.

However it can be stretched too far. I once wrote in the Daily Mail in 2012 about a vaguely alien-like retouch process that Demi Moore had done on her face for a beauty campaign for Helena Rubinstein. Airbrushed and contoured lines, defined cheekbones, flawless skin – all achievable with easy to learn Photoshop techniques. Even phones now can apply filters and special effects – the selfie has never been a candid portrayal and we all like to see A-list glossy magazine quality celebrities, caught out by paparazzi, acne ridden or with wrinkly hands under harsh lights of a red carpet event. The Photoshop myth often shattered for reality for our voyeuristic insight into the fabricated celebrity world.

This week David Cameron’s photo-shopped poppy image, dubbed ‘Poppygate’, takes this subject into a dark and deeply cynical place. In a month when millions of people are remembering those that fought and died in this country’s wars, some spin doctor in Downing Street thought it would be a good idea to add the red Poppy in post-production to give Cameron the image of someone in touch with the public. Not only that – the base image was an old one of Cameron – to give him a fresh and youthful look. It has backfired spectacularly. The backlash has spawned a myriad of comedy retouch efforts from savvy and quick online social media users, who use Photoshop for comedy ‘LOLs’. I’ve even seen a giant poppy with a small face of Cameron dropped onto it, his entire suit made of poppies, him bare-chested on a beach with a poppy pinned in him and even the cartoon character ‘Popeye’ retouched onto him. The social media movement are so savvy and quick to offer the deepest cuts, much quicker than ‘Mr Spin Doctor’.   The Downing Street depiction of Cameron with this poppy reeks of propaganda and highlights the potential damaging use of what should be a computer tool used by professionals to enhance the real rather than create the entirely fake, or to create fun images for entertainment purposes rather than project a political agenda or play on the hearts and minds of a sympathetic public.

Photoshop will remain a part of digital photography, but we should look to embrace those photographers that can achieve great results ‘in-camera’ and show restraint and caution when using the tool for sensitive or hard hitting editorial messages. I have always been an advocate of Photoshop but this week, demonstrated to me, a direction in the process that will make me take a hard look in the future at its general application.

Craig Gunn – Photography Manager | TNR

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