Model Denise Bidot featured in an un-retouched campaign for Swimsuitsforall. Photo: Instagram.
A few pioneering brands, publishers, and creatives are determined to re-define the aesthetic standards for contemporary beauty and fashion, taking a firm stance against the unattainable glamour of Photoshop-fueled images presented in mainstream media and most advertising campaigns.
Just as NYC-based fashion photography veteran Peter Freed has turned his lens from glossy editorials to un-retouched portraits of women of all ages and cultures in his upcoming crowdfunded book “Prime,” across the pond British independent magazine PYLOT has reinforced a strictly all-analog zero beauty-retouching policy for all its issues.
The London-based magazine’s photo editor, Bex Day, hopes that analog photography and publications like PYLOT will encourage a more unadulterated aesthetic in the industry, as she warns: “We are coming to live in a world that has become far too superficial and unrealistic.”
This, she points out, has resulted in higher levels of insecurity for both men and women and, even more worryingly, an increase in eating disorders too.
It may be complicated to trace all social and cultural factors concurring to the ever-growing epidemic of eating disorders across countries and generations, but it is undeniable that most media outlets champion a one-dimensional body ideal: for women, that is usually young, white and thin, mirroring to the world a very restrictive and unrelatable physique.
“I think PYLOT could really change beauty ideals and work toward individuals embracing their look for who they are, rather than challenging and defacing their beauty,” Day says. “Flawless and liquefied models will hopefully become a thing of the past.”
Day says modeling agencies have been encouragingly supportive of the magazine’s mission. As for the models, she thinks many are flattered to know they will not be retouched or made look thinner although she adds, “most models are already extremely self-aware so I do not think this makes a difference for them.”
As a photographer, Day holds analog dearest. She likes the aesthetic–the grains, the colors and the highlights showing–and also favors the development process. “I enjoy waiting for the negatives to be processed and scanning them as it gives you distance from them which allows you to think about the images in more depth,” she explains.
Additionally, shooting in analog helps her better conceive her pictures, as she points out: “you are more careful with the number of photos that you do take as it is expensive to shoot on film.”
Belgian photographer Sophie Van Der Perre is another self-professed analog lover who has worked with many big fashion publications, including Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire.
“For magazines and editorials, I really love combining [analog and digital] together, so it lifts each other up,” she says. “With analog, I do retouch the colors and gradient but further on I don’t retouch anything.”
While she explains that she never had to tell a model that pictures were not going to be altered–“It is hardly a subject that comes up when you are shooting somebody,” she remarks–the well-known sensual nostalgia of her work probably anticipates her on the field. In fact, as she observes: “I think when you work with me, you know there will be a limited retouching going on, because I like to keep it natural and grainy.”
Van Der Perre believes that a general shift in values is happening in the fashion and beauty industry, having observed that even agencies and editors are looking for more authenticity and natural looks–in analog and digital alike.
“It’s nice these days that photographers have the chance to shoot analog, but if they want to shoot digital that is okay too,” she says.
And indeed, to a certain extent, analog doesn’t necessarily mean more real, and definitely not more everyday, ordinary images. Choosing film just expresses an artistic sensitivity and a newfound devotion to photographic fieldwork, against post-production efforts.
As Day explains, images can look just as professional without excessive retouching: “It’s extremely important for subjects to be perceived how they look realistically rather than drastically altering their appearance.”
From Khloe Kardashian leaking the original picture for her Complex magazine cover to Lady Gaga’s recent un-retouched bridal shoot for CR Fashion Book, the idea of offering a more truthful representation of women to women seems to be pervading the industry on a larger scale, and a growing wave of digital advertising campaigns are jumping aboard the no-Photoshop bandwagon too.
Sara Mitzner is the content director for Swimsuitsforall, a “swimwear brand for curvy women” from New York City. Last June, the company released their first totally un-retouched swimwear campaign “Beach Body. Not Sorry” featuring glowing plus-size model, Denise Bidot.
The first of its kind for the brand, the plan had not initially been to go totally un-retouched. “It happened organically,” Mitzner says. The brand, she explains, usually allows light retouching, mostly to make sure their swimsuits stand out, especially on more product-focused photography for the website.
But this time, any touch-up felt pointless and redundant. “When we got the film back, [Bidot] looked so gorgeous.”
The model immediately embraced the spirit of the project with enthusiasm. “Denise is really more than a model,” Mitzner explains, “she’s a mum and she has a great message of ‘there is no wrong way to be a woman.’”
While Binot went through her photo session not knowing that the results would not be altered, other models consciously put through the same experience may feel under greater pressure to look perfect.
Talking to Mitzner, though, she posits that things may be different in the plus-size modeling world, pointing out: “In the curvy model world, the girls tend to have a positive attitude and love their bodies.”
Indeed, some of them come from a previous career as straight-size models, having then gone on a journey toward body-loving positivity at any size.
“It depends on the person, but the experience we had with our curvy models, they have all been supportive of concepts like this,” says Mitzner. “Their existence as models is based on loving the body they have, after all.”
Although Swimsuitsforall doesn’t currently have any other no-Photoshop projects in the pipeline, Mitzner sees the company moving in that direction in the future. But, more generally, she has noticed a trend happening in fashion and beauty photography right now. “There has been advancement in the body-positivity movement and also models want women to see what it is really like and not being disillusioned by the whole process.”
Indeed, within the industry many plus-sized models have been celebrating their natural looks to send a positive message of body acceptance. Just last April, British modeling agency, Models 1, commissioned an airbrushing-free shoot of a group of models from their Models 1 Curve division to “highlight and support diversity,” as a post on their website reads.
And for businesses, being real has shown to pay off.
Campaigns like “Beach Body. Not Sorry” bring brands a lot of media coverage, web traffic and, ultimately, more sales.
“We’re a company known for doing this innovative body-positive messaging in a really creative and sexy way. We’re lucky enough to have been recognized by the media for that,” Mitzner adds.
Similarly, in 2014 American Eagle stopped using Photoshop in all advertising campaigns for their lingerie line, Aerie. The bold marketing move proved to be a winner, and after just a few months the company announced that Aerie’s sales had quickly soared by nine percent.
It may be still too early to weigh in on the long-term results of these sorts of fearless strategies, but women–and consumers more generally–turn to brands and products they feel they can trust, and ditching all digital artifices possibly suggests a higher degree of transparency toward customers.
As PYLOT magazine’s editorials and Swimsuitsforall’s beaming campaign demonstrate, professional skills and creative talent are enough to build captivating fashion fantasies without resorting to deceptive beauty distortions.
In a market of increasingly savvy and skeptical individuals, flawless perfection is progressively less and less about inspiration and more and more about alienation.