Kim Kardashian has practically made a living off her curvaceous figure. But the E! network celeb was looking a little less shapely in Complex magazine in April, her body reduced about a dress size, her legs smoothed to near-perfection.
How did readers know? Complex accidentally posted a pre-Photoshopped image of Kardashian on its website -- before her thighs, arms and waist had been digitally sculpted. In a matter of hours the photo was gone. But in that brief time span, those who spotted it got a little reminder that we should think twice about taking photographs at face value.
"My belief," says Scott Kelby, president of the Florida-based National Assn. of Photoshop Professionals, "is that every single major magazine cover is retouched. I don't know how they couldn't be." But don't stop there. Aside from U.S. newspapers, most of which do not permit photos to be manipulated, it's quite possible that the vast majority of images seen in the public arena have been altered.
Photoshop, the go-to graphics editing program that got a foothold in the 1990s, has become so ubiquitous that most of us gaze at faces, bodies and landscapes, not even registering that wrinkles have been diminished, legs lengthened and the sky honed to a dream-like shade of blue. And, unlike its predecessor, airbrushing, anyone can use it.
But Photoshop's popularity has proven to be divisive. While some laud it for its ability to allow people -- and things -- to look their best in a photograph, others see it as a vehicle for feeding our culture's desire for uber-perfection.
"I think the perfect bodies we're seeing in magazines that are Photoshopped have a terrible effect on how women feel about their own bodies," says Montana Miller, assistant professor in the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
One theory about retouching in advertisements is that it's done to create an aspirational concept of beauty that inspires women to buy more products. Miller's heard another: that the goal of showing perfect images is to make women feel bad about themselves -- also making them buy more beauty products.
Kelby, who also writes a blog on Photoshop, doesn't believe it's a malevolent force; in fact, he sees it as practical and cites the example of singer Faith Hill.
In 2007, the fashion website Jezebel posted unaltered images of Hill that were shot for a Redbook magazine cover. In comparing them to the finished product, it appeared that Hill got a makeover, including erased crow's-feet, excised back fat and a slimmer arm.
The fallout was huge -- the Jezebel post generated more than 1.3 million views, and was picked up by ABCNews.com, VH1.com, TMZ.com and a number of blogs. Many commenters were angry that an already attractive woman had her image altered to appear on the cover of a national magazine. (Redbook declined to comment for this story.)
"If you met Faith Hill in person," Kelby says, "you would think she's absolutely beautiful. And when you take her picture, you will see every flaw that you never saw in person. Those flaws not only become visible, but magnified. . . .
"If I were talking to someone, I'd look at their eyes, not at the blemish on the side of their face. But as soon as you open up that photo on a 30-inch monitor, you'd say, 'Oh my gosh, where did that come from?' "
What the brain perceives in a still photo is vastly different from what it perceives in real life, according to Dr. Dale Purves, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Up close and personal, "every second you're getting a series of images of a person that you're kind of blending together, and that would be a little more forgiving." What we're taking in, he adds, is a load of stuff, including clothing, personality and smells -- elements that can evaporate in two dimensions.
When it comes to editorial photos for magazines, it's common for several different people -- photographers, professional retouchers, photo editors, art directors, publishers -- to have a say about an image. Although some editors insist celebrities don't have final say on how images will be altered, "If they're big enough, they do get [final approval]" says Howard Bragman, chairman of the Fifteen Minutes publicity and media company and author of "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?"
Retoucher Amy Dresser sits at a computer monitor in her home office scanning a portrait of an auburn-haired model to demonstrate how she uses Photoshop. She deftly zaps a few small moles and then peers at a small white patch just below the model's eye before obliterating that too.
"I think one of my main objectives," she says, "is to erase distractions. When you look at an image, sometimes people can't focus on what they're supposed to focus on because there's something going on in the background."
She adds, "I don't have a rule that a mole near her armpit equals bad. It's really case by case. I don't think anything is universally bad."
Dresser is considered one of the top freelance retouchers in Los Angeles. Her portfolio includes work on celebrity, advertising and model photos (Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Kat Von D, Lil Wayne, Dita Von Teese) for editorial work, and promotion, as well as big-budget ad campaigns.
For editorial portraits, Dresser says she doesn't take liberties, such as over-softening facial features and turning subjects into plastic-like dolls, a look often seen in rookie Photoshop work. She abhors that style, leaving in freckles and moles and sometimes drawing in stray hairs to retain a person's humanness.
"When it comes to notable people," she says, "I feel like embracing the details of that person's face is what I'm supposed to do. Obviously a person wants to have a nice picture of themselves, and the photographer doesn't want to look bad, and I don't want to look like a lazy retoucher, and the magazine wants an appealing image, so you have to find that middle ground."
People may not think too much about Photoshop when scanning the magazine stand, but they do notice immediately when altered images of notable people go awry. Comedian and actor Dane Cook went off on his blog about his Photoshopped image for the movie poster for "My Best Friend's Girl." "Whoever photoshopped our poster must have done so at taser point with 3 minutes to fulfill their hostage takers deranged obligations. . . ." Tennis player Andy Roddick was digitally enhanced for a cover of Men's Fitness in 2007, and posted this on his blog: "Little did I know I have 22-inch guns and a disappearing birth mark on my right arm. . . . I walked by the newsstand in the airport and did a total double take. I can barely figure out how to work the red-eye tool on my digital camera. Whoever did this has mad skills."
Kardashian blogged that Complex's slip-up didn't faze her: "So what," she wrote, "I have a little cellulite. What curvy girl doesn't!? How many people do you think are photoshopped? It happens all the time! I'm proud of my body and my curves and this picture coming out is probably helpful for everyone to see that just because I am on the cover of a magazine doesn't mean I'm perfect."
At Complex magazine, editor-in-chief Noah Callahan-Bever says he tries to sit in on every cover shoot to ensure what's seen on set is accurately translated into a two-dimensional image.
"I want to make sure that person is represented in a fair way," he says. "If their flesh tone ends up looking flat and dead, and it doesn't look true to who they are, then it goes back for more retouching."
Ask Ladies' Home Journal creative director Jeffrey Saks if magazines are consciously manipulating images to foster readers' poor self-images and he firmly denies it.
"We're not trying to make women feel bad," he says. "We're trying to show women looking like real people, and whatever cleaning up we do is basically about the quality of the photograph more than trying to do plastic surgery."
Gigi Durham, associated professor of media studies at the University of Iowa, doesn't buy into the argument that Photoshop helps people regain what they lose when going from real life to a flat page.
"We do see who people are in real life," Durham says. "We can actually see blemishes and weight and body shape, and most of the time we love them anyway. I think manipulated images are far from that, and have impacts that are more negative because they're subject to far more scrutiny than we'd give them in real life." She's referring to the fact that young women, especially, pore over magazine photos, comparing themselves to the images.
"When I've talked to young adolescents about this," she says, "they're not aware of the extent of the manipulation."
Even those who are more savvy, she adds, are still affected. "They know that no one really looks like that, but they still say, 'I wish my waist were that small.' "
With technology always evolving, no doubt graphics programs like Photoshop will become more sophisticated and easier to use, possibly making it even more widespread. If "to Photoshop or not to Photoshop" is the question, the answer lies in what retouching will ultimately achieve.
These days, purposely being seen au naturel is almost a political statement. Last April's edition of French Elle featured eight European women, including Monica Bellucci and Charlotte Rampling, sans makeup and retouching. To many, it was as refreshing as it was eye-grabbing.
In the course of making adjustments on the auburn-haired model, Dresser mentions that she recently joined an online dating site, and posted a photo of herself. Was she tempted to Photoshop it?
"I just adjust color -- that's my personal rule. Obviously I can retouch myself to look different, and I'm aware of how a person can look different in two different photos. So I try to find a photo of me being me."