Peter Lindbergh and the Pros and Cons of Retouching

In the past, the Pirelli calendar brought to mind luxuriously photographed images of scantily (at most) clad women. The last few years, however, have brought a marked diversion from this kind of content and a look forward into what it means to photograph a beautiful woman.

Annie Leibovitz’s much-publicized deviation from the use of traditional models, perhaps most notably Yoko Ono and Amy Schumer, all of whom were clothed, became the talk of 2015. Now the calendar’s latest photographer is causing another stir. Peter Lindbergh will be working with accomplished actresses (and one professor), and will leave his images completely un-retouched for the 2017 calendar. As far as the Pirelli calendar goes, Lindbergh has deviated from the traditional once before: in 2002, he made the choice to photograph only actresses, and totally clothed ones at that, stating ” [I thought] it was probably better to say that talent is more important than a great body, no?”

Some thought has been raised as to whether or not Lindbergh moving away from retouching the Pirelli calendar is a “game changer,” if this is something all photographers should do in the future. There has been considerable discussion about this idea in the last few years in both editorial (see: the Lena Dunham/Vogue images and commercial work (see: American Eagle’s Aerie campaign from the same year).

But Lindbergh is known for not allowing his work to be retouched at all. In fact, publications that work with him must sign contracts promising not to do anything to his images. If not, the photographer has said, they definitely do mess with the photographs. In light of his recent exhibition at the Kunsthal Rotterdam in The Netherlands, The Guardian reported an account of Lindbergh assembling the show saying, “You don’t see the power and the poetry of not being perfect?”

The photographer also spoke to Vogue earlier this month and echoed another sentiment about retouching, namely his disdain for the beauty ideals publications set forth when they do a great deal of retouching. “You can’t imagine how people talk about pictures today,” he told the publication. “We don’t do that, but they look at a picture and say, ‘Oh, that’s nice, the hips make a little smaller, stretch the legs . . .’ It’s really horrible. They get so carried away, I could beat them all up! If legs are large, that’s because they are legs, no? Today, editors go, ‘Oh, it’s terrible!’ I say, ‘What’s terrible, it’s a fantastic leg.’ ‘[But] it’s so thick!’ And I say, ‘Sorry, they have some muscles or something.’” For Lindbergh, retouching as a whole is not to be messed with, especially not as it pertains to altering a body’s physical structure. Is this the future?

For other photographers, though, retouching is part of the art form (see: David LaChapelle, Mert & Marcus); it is up to them to shape the image, their artwork, into whatever form they like. An article on Fstoppers reminds us that “the camera is not an impartial recording tool,” that often what we’re focusing on in an image, how we compose our photograph, how much light we use and so on already alter the original elements in front of the lens. Retouching an image, they say, is what adds “idealism, stylization, and fantasy” to an image. The image was never supposed to be attainable, in other words; it was always supposed to be a facade. What does end up happening, though, whether or not the photographer originally had the intention of doing so, is that (especially in fashion photography) a person can look to the image and and see it as a visual dictate.

As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Is retouching then done within reason–i.e., never structurally or physically altering a person’s natural shape–or is it done…however the photographer wants, in whatever capacity, at any time, and the list goes on ad infinitum? Do photographers have a responsibility to the viewing public, only to themselves and their artistic vision, both, or neither? Photographers on all sides of these questions are bending the ideas of what fashion photography is and can be in the future, and as fashion photographers, these are questions we must consider when moving forward in our work.

When you choose to retouch a lot, a little, or not at all, it’s important to remember that you are making a statement about who you are as a photographer, as an artist. Bending the ideals of what is given to you is part of what makes an artist in the first place. As ever, it’s important to remember to experiment and see what’s right for you.

Elyssa Goodman