BOB GARFIELD: To say that photographs don't depict reality is by now a cliché. We all know not to trust everything we see in a photo. But in the 20 years since the release of the computer program Photoshop it’s worth noting just how far that cliché has come. Indeed, Photoshop is so ubiquitous that virtually every professional picture you encounter has been digitally retouched in one way or another. It’s just - so easy. And perhaps no one has played more of a role making this the norm in fashion and celebrity journalism than Pascal Dangin, who runs a studio in New York that enhances and sweetens and perfects thousands of photo spreads a year. New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins has written about Dangin, a man they call “the photo whisperer.”
LAUREN COLLINS: Think of him as kind of a human Oxy Pad.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
LAUREN COLLINS: There’s a perception in this field that he is the one person who knows exactly how a shoulder blade should look or knows exactly how to make saggy knees look beautiful in a believable way. I remember he told me told me in the grunge phase of fashion he would spend hours, you know, sitting at his computer and deliberating, trying to decide which was the cool wrinkle to leave in the photograph.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm! And his influence is so vast that photographers actually go into a shoot sometimes with instructions from him about what he may want for him to digitally retouch. Is that right?
LAUREN COLLINS: I think they would say it’s a collaborative process. I mean, what he is, more than anything is sort of the consigliere for this generation of very successful, very powerful photographers who are either uncomfortable or indifferent to the details of how to use this digital technology that they know makes their photographs look better. So Pascal has a lot of power because of that, because of the trust that people put in him. You know, these photographers know that they can give sort of a vague mandate to Pascal, make her look more vroom. He'll push buttons on his computer – they don't really care which ones – and make that happen.
BOB GARFIELD: I mean, how much of this is retouching and how much of it is just sort of photo fraud?
LAUREN COLLINS: He says that he uses the principles of anatomy and of musculature to make women look their best but in a believable manner. So I was watching him retouch a photo spread of a very famous actress, someone we all know, and -
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, wait, wait, someone we all know.
LAUREN COLLINS: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: You can't mention the name?
LAUREN COLLINS: I promised him I would take it to the grave. But he did a lot of stuff to her. I mean, it was her neck, her eyes. There were things that I didn't even know to be self-conscious about, like, sort of these ropy blue veins on her feet had to go. But she had an endearingly crooked row of bottom teeth, and he knew better than to touch those. I mean, he said, you know, I still want her to be her.
BOB GARFIELD: But one of the reasons celebrities are so idolized is because they just seem so miraculous, so – not so much larger than life as just better than life.
LAUREN COLLINS: Right. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: And these fashion photographs certainly help perpetuate that idea. Is he an artist or a racketeer?
LAUREN COLLINS: I don't know. I can see both sides of it. I mean, fashion ads, they're certainly not public service announcements. On the other hand, yes, this is contributing to a totally unrealistic image of women and what they look like. His defense, like that of a bail bondsman or a repo man, would be to say, don't shoot the messenger, I'm just reflecting a desire in greater society. I think the readers of magazines know that they're looking for beauty, they're looking for glamour; they're looking for otherworldly excitement. I mean, they don't want to look at pictures of dumpy people in their pajamas who haven't washed their hair in five days.
BOB GARFIELD: Although there’s a market for those too, right?
LAUREN COLLINS: Well, I was going to say, what’s interesting is that at the same time this bag of tricks has gotten so much larger for the retouchers, there’s also emerged the entire paparazzi industry, and the images feed each other in a way. I mean, the more perfect and flat-abbed Britney Spears looks in Vogue or in Bazaar, the more we want to see her flabby thighs on the beach in US Weekly. So I think there’s a element of “you’re busted.”
BOB GARFIELD: So in the annals of celebrity photo retouching, are there any cases where either Dangin or anybody else has been caught in the act, crossing some sort of line?
LAUREN COLLINS: Sort of the classic cautionary tale was TV Guide once had an issue, and Oprah Winfrey, you know, she was their cover star. People thought it was Oprah’s body until Ann-Margret’s husband was looking at TV Guide one day –
[BOB LAUGHS] – noticed a familiar diamond on the [LAUGHS] supposed Oprah’s finger, and realized that it had been Oprah’s head on his wife, Ann-Margret’s, body.
BOB GARFIELD: Lauren, thank you so much.
LAUREN COLLINS: Yeah, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Lauren Collins is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her piece, Pixel Perfect, was in the Magazine in 2008.