Image Retouching – the World’s Oldest Art

I’ve been musing on the various “usual opinions” regarding Photoshop – most of which seem to come down to it misrepresenting reality – and have come to two conclusions:
1. Most people outside of the design industry really don’t know what Photoshop is generally used for and
2. Misrepresenting reality has been happening since people BEGAN creating art.

Let’s talk about the latter first, because just after I was mulling that aspect of it, a pertinent little nugget came my way.

Pharoh Menkaure and queen

Think back around 4000 years ago, back to the Egyptians. Man was beyond creating rudimentary art and had developed tools and expertise and was creating some very refined artwork. Now, I and certain that many people who have  studied Egyptian art have noticed that all of those figures of the Pharohs and other royals look alike. There’s a reason for that: artistic convention in the Egyptian portraiture rather stipulated a requisite pose and depiction of the royals. There might be some attempt at depicting individual feature, but often the only way to know who was who was to read the inscription. The purpose of this was that these images were to represent the individuals depicted throughout eternity (and you don’t want to spend eternity looking like a schlub or out-of-date!). So right from the beginning we’re seeing figures that really ARE idealized!

(note that I’m specifying formal, royal portraiture; mere mortals’ portrayal was much more relaxed and individualized. Oh, and there also the precedent of reusing an old statue for a new one – just pop on a new head and inscription and you’re good to go!)

Akhenaten and Nefertiti

It wasn’t until the ascent of Akhenaten that we get a better glimpse of what the royals looked like, warts and all – literally. In addition to forming a monotheistic religion, moving the capital to Armana (two things that TPTB behind the throne REALLY hated), he also called for a more natural depiction of everyone, including himself and his family. From this decree, we did gain the beautiful bust of his wife Nefertiti. But we also received some pretty not-so-pretty depictions of Akhenaten himself.

(this is what generations of inbreeding led to….)

This isn’t to say that everything went out the window.

Tutankhamen mask

Looking at Akhenaten’s son-in-law, Tutankhamen we see that the this phase only lasted during Akhenaten’s life and his successor/son/son-in-law Tutankhamen began turning things back to the way they were before, old gods and all.  His funerary mask is probably the best known of all Egyptian artifacts.

Beautiful, isn’t it?  But did Tutankhamen look remotely like that?


computer simulation of Tutankhamen

Not so much. You can read the complete story on how scientists used 2000 computer scans to do a ‘virtual autopsy and created the representation of the “boy king” here,

Now, none of this is to say that the Egyptians were the only people who created idealized portraits of their royalty.  Indeed, they were the first in a very long line of artists that gave their subjects the benefit of the physical doubt when it came to representation. Look no further than your closest monument and you see an idealized depiction of your local war hero. And I’m suspecting that some royals requested a little ‘painterly’ love (or it would be the wise artist who would do so…)

The point here is is that Photoshop didn’t bring retouching and refining the image into existence. It’s been with us ever since Man began depicting the human form. And one can be certain that those paintings depicting one person or another in some mythological venue weren’t painted from reality.

What Photoshop has done is made this sort of idealization digital.  But there IS a difference between idealization and outright deception – and therein lies the “problem of Photoshop.”




Posted in Retouching Tagged with: