To understand the history of the image and in particular, the photographic image, one has to consider the ancient civilizations. Egyptian paintings and works of art are well documented but it wasn’t until the rise of the Roman Empire that the portrait flourished. Roman portraits primarily took the form of a sculpture and it was particularly fashionable to depict an unflattering representation of the subject. Our seemingly modern fascination with perfection can be traced back to France during the middle ages when the trend shifted to producing painted portraits that favoured an idealized symbol of what the person looked like.
Due to the enormous cost, commissioning a painted or sculptured portrait was an act reserved only for royalty and the very highest within society. To meet the high demand for inexpensive portraiture saw the invention of the daguerreotype during the middle of the 19th century that employed numerous physical and chemical discoveries of the era. This was essentially an early type of photograph in which the image is exposed directly onto a photosensitive plate. Further refinement of the design and processes as well as advancements in photographic glass plates reduced the cost and a large number of photographic studios in major cities around the world began to offer photographic services to the masses.
Development of the photographic film towards the end of the 19th century replaced photographic plates. Photography and the professional photographer were no longer confined to the studio. A great many advances in the technology led to the appearance of the modern 35mm and compact film cameras used today. The costs were further reduced to the point where cameras became disposable as early as the mid eighties. The inclusion of a variety of cameras in the basket of 650 goods used to calculate the Retail Price Index for almost two decades is testament to the popularity of photography. The 35mm camera was only recently removed in 2006 when it was replaced with the digital camera.
Digital cameras first became commercially available in the very early nineties and saw the replacement of film with a photon sensitive chip and rewriteable memory cards. There are many advantages when comparing digital against film. One such advantage is that the physical size of a camera can be reduced such that it can be incorporated into a mobile phone. Despite initially being very expensive, digital overtook film in developed countries in 2002 and the technology is now cheap enough to allow for disposable digital cameras. Photography as a profession, as a hobby and part of popular culture has become even more accessible thanks to the digital technology to the point that the percentage of the UK population owning a digital camera or camera phone has risen to 90% according to a recent survey.
Shipment volumes of digital cameras have been rising year on year and totaling 7.5 million units in 2007. Total digital camera sales hit 50 million in 2003, rising to 114 million in 2007 and forecasts don’t predict slowdown due to market saturation any time before 2010.
The digital revolution has made the transition of getting an image from the camera lens to the computer screen a trivial exercise. Retouching encompasses everything from modest enhancement to restoration and recovery of an otherwise objectionable or unusable image. Photographic retouching is often considered to be a modern concept due to recent advances in computer performance and software capability besides the relatively recent introduction of the digital camera itself. However, this is far from the truth.
Photo manipulation is as old as photography itself. Joseph Stalin regularly made use of photo retouching techniques for propaganda purposes as early as the 1920s. Before computers, photo manipulation was achieved by retouching with ink, paint, double exposure and piecing photos or negatives together in the darkroom.
“Photoshopping” is slang for the digital editing of photographs; the term originating from Adobe Photoshop, the image editor most commonly used by professionals for this purpose. The 1980s saw the advent of digital retouching. Before digital cameras became widely obtainable, the most common way of getting a print onto a computer was via a scanner. The processing power needed to manipulate large images has up until recently been beyond the reach of most. Purchasing expensive custom hardware from leading manufactures of the time, Silicon Graphics and Apple Macintosh was unavoidable.
The number of households in the UK owning a personal computer capable of image retouching is around 65%. This combined with the extremely large portion of the population owning equipment capable of taking digital photos; one would imagine that a sizable number of individuals would be retouching their own photographs to meet their ever increasing desires for flawlessness.
Retouching software is varied in functionality and the cost of some of the less capable packages is inexpensive when compared to the price of computer and camera equipment. Becoming proficient in retouching however is not just a one off purchase. A great deal of patience and commitment to acquiring the necessary skills is required. Furthermore, an artistic flare is more often than not an advantage. The act of retouching is also a time consuming affair. A recent study has shown that lifestyles are changing. Working and commuting hours are increasing and social calendars are becoming crowded. To compensate for this, a culture of contracting out tasks that are either time consuming, requiring effort or are considered tedious is increasingly becoming the norm. For instance, it is not uncommon for tired office workers to pay to have their shirts ironed and hand car washing businesses in public car parks are thriving. A recent study showed that 48% of homes in Britain employ an average of three outside helpers at a cost of £20 billion; undertaking a range of tasks from dog walking to personal shopping.
Photographs, on a personal level, can become treasured items. In addition to documenting events and special occasions they capture moments in time of friends and loved ones. Weddings, holidays, graduations and children growing up are popular photographic opportunities that are often unrepeatable in nature. Making the most of the available photographs is favourable. Photographs also have more pragmatic uses as it makes good business sense to showcase products and services to potential customers in the most attractive way. Allowing all types of images to look their finest through retouching is both appealing and beneficial.
Advances in computer and networking technology have led to the inevitable rise and subsequent dominance of the Internet. The number of households having access to the World Wide Web via high speed broadband connections in the UK is around 55%. $259 billion of online sales including travel occurred in 2007 in the US; an 18% increase from the previous year14. It is advantageous for businesses and services such as traditional high street retailers, banks, restaurants, tourist attractions, estate agents and hotels to secure and maintain an online presence and in turn, the demand for high quality images looks set to increase.
Images are required for a wide selection of applications. Besides the recent emergence of the online paradigm as highlighted above, demand for traditional photography services remains strong such as wedding, portraiture, sports and journalism to name but a few. Meeting this demand for imagery is now easier than ever thanks to the profusion of photographic equipment. Photographs of an exceptional standard that satisfy our need for perfection however are reserved only for big business and those with deep pockets. All photographs, whether or not they were taken professionally, can benefit from some degree of retouching; a term which covers all forms of manipulation and enhancement. It is not uncommon for magazine cover photographs, despite having been taken by notable professional photographers using the very best equipment, to undergo hours of post production work to produce the perfect image.
To achieve faultless images, a number of companies and individuals currently offer specialist retouching services to the big industry players, often on a contract basis. It is also becoming commonplace for photographers to invest in the tools required to manipulate images and become proficient in their use in order to meet the increasing demands of the client. Such services are expensive and are not aimed at the mass market. The only real solution available to the general public is to purchase a suitable computer and acquire the knowledge to create masterpieces of their own images using relatively costly retouching software. A number of companies now offer online retouching services and make the whole process easy and affordable for individuals and businesses alike. One such company is London based Retouch Genie Ltd.
The yearning to look flawless and conform to contemporary ideals is not a new concept. For hundreds of years Chinese women bound their feet to stunt growth and in Elizabethan times wore corsets which caused broken ribs all for a desirable curvy silhouette. In recent years however, celebrity obsession, glossy magazines, television makeover shows, fashion, pharmaceuticals, weight-loss and advertising industries, rightly or wrongly, have intensified the quest for perfection. In the UK, the number of cosmetic surgical procedures carried out has increased by a third between 2004 and 2006.
From a number of business applications, selling items in online auctions, social networking profiles, online dating, leisure, tourism and travel, the perfect image has many diverse and varied applications and the photographic retouching industry is likely to grow as a result.