The Missing Retoucher Credit
Retoucher Liz Mooney discusses how her work both has and hasn't evolved as the fashion industry has tried to become more progressive.
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Have you ever noticed that some photo shoots will credit seemingly every single person involved with the production on Instagram? The photographer and stylist, sure, but also, maybe even both of those people’s assistants, the prop stylist, the nail artist, and so on. “It used to be that photo assistants could never get credit. They wouldn't even be credited in a magazine. You could turn to the back of the [magazine] and they wouldn't mention the photo assistant,” said Liz Mooney, a professional retoucher with a decade of experience. However, she noticed on Teen Vogue’s Instagram feed, for instance, that the postproduction team, including the retoucher, would be left off cover shoot credits.
Yet this is not unique to Teen Vogue — the image-making industry at large has had a long habit of not crediting retouchers. “It is a statement, whether you mean it or not, to not credit someone,” said Mooney. I noticed that Allure, Cosmopolitan, and the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” tag many people involved with photo shoot production, but also haven’t credited retouchers in recent posts of cover shoots. Print fashion magazines tend not to credit them either (in Billie Eilish’s March 2020 Vogue cover shoot, to pick one example, the tailor was credited in fine print in the back of the magazine, but not a postproduction team).
Credit would be one way to disclose that yes, these images from professional fashion photo shoots are retouched, and signal to a reader that they are more art than real life. But not crediting them may point to retouching’s fraught history more so than anything else.
I’ve been writing about retouching since becoming a fashion journalist around 2008. Before media was primarily consumed digitally, photoshop fails were mostly the private humiliation of a handful of people working in certain art departments. As the internet enabled these images to spread, they became a whole genre — just Google “photoshop fails” — that scratched the itch the masses long had to prove that magazine and advertising images are artifice instead of beauty that normal people can achieve by buying the stuff those publications and brands told us to buy.
After all, it wasn’t like the fashion and beauty industries were exactly readily owning up to retouching. British GQ was forced to admit that it retouched Kate Winslet for its February 2003 cover after she slammed the magazine for slimming her legs. (Winslet later famously refused retouching for her 2015 Lancôme campaign and her sex scene and promotional posters for the HBO show Mare of Easttown.)
A lot has changed in fashion and media since 2003. Both industries have become more visibly politically progressive to appeal to younger consumers. After the social justice movement of 2020, the fashion industry has made more of an effort than ever before to cast models of diverse skin tones and body types. But I have been wondering if the industry’s approach to retouching, which helped promote unrealistic beauty and body standards for decades, had evolved along with these long overdue changes in casting. This was the reason I called Mooney, who studied fine art at Rhode Island School of Design. After discovering a passion for photography but realizing the work of a photographer wasn’t for her, she tried retouching. After a few years working at Gloss, a high-end postproduction studio that did work for fashion photographers like Cass Bird, David Sims, and Steven Meisel, she set up her own business in 2015. Our conversation below has been edited and condensed.
What has changed in retouching over the course of your career? I know fashion image-making changed after the social justice movement of 2020, but it’s unclear to me how and if retouching changed also.
Honestly, I think a lot of the changes that people are picking up in fashion imagery happen way before postproduction. [After 2020,] we were working on images of [diverse] people more often.
Also, I think the trend has gone for much less commercial lighting. A lot of the imagery used to have that really high-drama, high-fashion lighting — very bright, dark shadows. You could tell they're in front of a really strong light, the kind of lighting that you would never be in in real life. Now, the images themselves — before they even get to retouching and post-production — feel much more like daylight, like what you would see in real life. So in those situations, often people need less retouching because the camera sees less in the softer lighting.
I've always had the perspective of less is more, and being conscious about why I'm making this decision in retouching. If it's a lipstick job, we don't really need to be making all these changes to the clothes, to the hair if the focus of the image is the lips. In the past, I was the one [saying] let's do a little less, and now clients are starting to come to me with that request in the first place.
And this changed around 2020?
Yeah. In 2020 [because of the pandemic], people weren't able to get into the studio to shoot, so they had to shoot outside, they had to shoot on their iPhones. So the quality of the images and the look [underwent] a drastic change.
How do you think social media affects the practice of retouching? You could argue that many of us are retouchers these days given that before we post photos of ourselves to social media, we filter them or edit them somehow to make them look better. We also see more edited images on a daily basis than we ever have before.
I definitely am retouching more photos that are only for Instagram for clients than I ever have in my career. Prior to 2020, social media images that were web-only were a lower rate than editorial — not as much art direction was put into them, not as much budget. Now I'm definitely seeing things that are just for web or social media climbing up the ladder in terms of importance to clients.
I go back and forth on how I feel about the level of retouching that social media images get. Because I think there's such an expectation for them to be snapshots. I think the viewers aren't mentally prepared for them to have the same level of production as an image they would be seeing in a magazine or on a billboard.
What would make you feel more comfortable with this level of editing on social media posts?
I'm not against retouching — obviously it's my bread and butter — but I do think it would be less problematic if retouchers got credit.
I would assume that most people are aware that these images are getting retouched.
I don't think that's true, actually. People in the industry know, but the average person on TikTok or Instagram, like young people, it's very, very out of sight, out of mind. I just do really feel like if it's not being called out, people forget. And for everyone's mental health, they need a reminder, even if it's as simple as crediting the person who's been doing the work.
There is legislation in other countries about this. Like Norway recently passed a law requiring influencers to disclose when images have been retouched.
This is exactly what you're saying, but I'm going to rephrase it — right now the industry expects the viewer to know better, quote-unquote. But I think that it's up to the people making the images — it's our responsibility to make it clear what's happening rather than just push it onto the viewer.
Every so often, you’ll see with brands like Aerie, or a magazine will do an unretouched issue to make a statement about postproduction and image editing. That's usually the move is they just take it away altogether or come up with rules about what you can and can’t do. I think that's just in disservice of the art form and a misunderstanding of what the purpose of it is. There are so many great artists out there who really push their art form with post-production. So I think rather than saying you can't do this you can't do that, we should just stop pretending that it's not a massively important part of image production.
Over the course of the history of retouching, there has been a lot of sensitivity around retouching women’s bodies. I’m curious if today you notice more of a hesitancy to retouch women’s shapes.
Overall, I’m going to say no.
A lot of that has to do with the way that turning a person into a completely still, flat image allows your eye to travel over the body and the clothes and see things that you would never notice in motion or in real life. It's not natural to see someone frozen and still, that's something you can never experience in real life. Clothes pinch in certain places, we have loose bits of skin in our bodies so that we can twist and turn and bend. There’s no longer one way to have an attractive body, but I would still say that overall, like little rolls of skin — it’s still like very much like, No, we gotta take that out. We can't have anything that somebody might perceive as fat.
What about the famous Kate Winslet situation where she was upset about being slimmed down on that GQ cover. Are we past that or no?
I really don't think so at all. I think there's more space for people who don't approach their work that way. I think the umbrella has widened for there to be more different types of photographers and more different types of casting so that people of all sizes are represented. But just look at the Kardashians. They set the beauty standard and whether that's something that you aspire to [or not], their influence is massive. Their images are extremely retouched and trimmed and resized. I've never worked on stuff, but—
You can tell.
Yeah. That's something that's so great about social media, to be honest — it's expanded all the different ways of expressing yourself. It used to be that just Vogue was able to set a standard. And now there's a lot more out there. But they're still considered what's mainstream.
What do you think the role of retouching should be today?
There's so much more to retouching or postproduction than just cleaning up the image, if there's a loose fiber or your hair's in your eye or something. It needs to shift in perception — and a lot of photographers already view it this way — but away from a technician's job. It’s like having like a plumber come to your house to fix your toilet, and like a lot of the language that gets used is fix this, fix that. It needs to be viewed as more of a creative partnership role, like working with a designer to like redo your bathroom would be, I think, the difference. When you view it as a means to an end or like, Oh, just clean up this, or, Clean up that, you start to view your images or the subjects in your images as problems to fix. And if you view it more as we want [retouching] to heighten the image, it's a part of the story that you're trying to tell with the image.
So then it’s not really just getting involved after the shoot is completed.
I think it's actually really important to have your retoucher go on set and meet the talent. I know that I always have the images turn out better and more authentic to the people who are being shot if I'm able to speak to them to be like, “How's your skin today? Is this how your skin normally looks or are there things about yourself that you're self-conscious about?” Especially with celebrities, they have a lot of insecurities about their appearance. They have a certain way they like to look.
And also, just in terms of representing someone's skin tone accurately, just the way that the cameras and white balances work — sometimes it can be really hard to know what someone's skin really looks like unless you see it in person. And I think that's something that the industry was really behind on for a long time, representing people of colors’ skin tones accurately and beautifully and lusciously. That's something you have to actively make a choice to be considerate and conscious about.
What disclosures do you think should be made about retouching? Should publications or brands tell consumers exactly what they do to an image?
I've thought about this a lot and I just don't see any way that getting into the grittier specifics will do anybody a service. I think part of the reason why retouching has been kept more secret is there's a lot of anxiety in the industry about people thinking that retouched images are retouched. They're worried that it will undermine the makeup artist or the hair artist, or the beauty of the subjects. And I think that just like comes down to a misunderstanding of what photography is. There's such a push to have people believe that it's real, and to go back to what we were saying before, I think that's part of the reason why people are shifting to a more natural looking lighting, and why Gen Z is picking up disposable cameras. I think there's just such a hunger for things to feel real and not processed.
For instance, I would love for Instagram to just have a little box you could check when you're uploading an image where you don't even have to get into nitty gritty, you just click the box and be like, this image was edited. And then, it would say that in italics or whatever. Not talking about it is creating shame. And I just don't think there's anything inherently wrong with it. I think it's the secrecy that's making it weird.
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