Opening Space: A Picture Is Worth How Much?

Remember the good old days when you could trust what you saw when you looked at a photograph?

By Bo Bengtson | August 1, 2006

Remember the good old days when you could trust what you saw when you looked at a photograph? Actually, it was never that simple, because from Day One anyone who took a photograph, or had one taken, of a beloved dog or human could mess around with the print so the result would look "better than nature.”

What was different then was that usually the retouching was so obvious that even the most gullible would realize that what you saw was not an original. If you’ve been around for a few years you may remember Wire Fox Terriers that looked like cardboard cut-outs and Poodles with a quarter-inch extra topknot added in ink. The late, great and lamented dog photographer Rudolf Tauskey often painted a completely new dog, using the original photograph only as a rough guide for his new creation.

You could laugh a little at the result, but nobody was fooled or believed for a moment that what you saw was anything but an artistic rendition of reality.

So what are we to think of today’s photographic creations, easy to find in any dog publication near you? I had an interesting experience recently when someone sent me a torn-out page from another publication with a photograph of a dog I had just judged and put up. "What were you thinking?!?” was the rhetorical question.

I had to admit that this didn’t look much like the dog I had liked so much on the day. Something was very wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was: short of tidying up the outline a little, how much retouching can you do and still have a photo look this "natural”? Since I had a copy of the original, unretouched photograph in my possession I made a close comparison with the help of a magnifying glass and realized that it was not just the outline that had been changed. Using a sophisticated digital technique, the dog had actually been chopped up and reassembled so that the proportions were altered: the loin was shorter, the thighs flattened, the tail reshaped… Forget about the fact that this dog didn’t benefit from any of the changes (in fact, in my opinion it didn’t look nearly as good as in the original) — the job was so well done, so meticulous and subtle, that without an original to compare it to I would never have believed it could have been changed that much.


Adding Some Background

This is not an isolated instance, of course, although in some other cases I discovered the retouching by pure accident. I remember a glorious ad showing a dog trotting proud and free across a green meadow with a verdant landscape in the background. It looked stunning, and I remember thinking what a brilliant shot it was — until I happened to come across the original, which was taken at a dog show, with the handler’s legs, ring ropes and a port-a-potty in the background… I don’t think the dog’s conformation had been altered, but being able to lift an entire image out of a photograph and drop it down somewhere else so well that you think it’s for real means that you cannot, in fact, trust your eyes any more.

What the photographers and advertisers think of retouching varies a lot. When we asked them (in a Dogs in Review survey last year), most of the  photographers told us they may brush out an offending leash, a hand, an ugly background — but most insist that they won’t alter the dog’s conformation. Well, maybe just a strand of hair… perhaps a sunglint in the eye… an unflattering jowl that the dog really doesn’t have in real life… and by then you’re already on the slippery slope of conformation alteration.  A few die-hards felt that no alterations were acceptable: what you get is what they saw in the camera, a fraction of reality recorded for eternity. On the other hand, a couple of others consider the photograph only as the start and feel that "enhancing” is perfectly acceptable. Fortunately, in most cases the words "Artwork by…” etc. are then added to the caption.

We can’t turn back the clock, we can’t undo the technological advances, and we will always want our dogs to look as good as is possible. What we have to do, I guess, is try to be a lot less naïve when viewing the images that surround us. That’s sad, because it means that a truly great "natural” photo will never again have the impact it used to have. 


Perception Replaces Reality

Perhaps a new generation looks at it differently. The following are some thoughts from a friend with whom I discussed this subject. I think they are worth quoting:

"I, too, wish that the 'truth' in art and news was more reality than perception these days. But our generation has watched perception literally replace reality in the media. Encouragingly, the next generation seems to be quite savvy to that, and is now seeking an extra exponent of reality and truth as a result, not just in dogs, horses, or people but in life. That's certainly healthy.”

To avoid misunderstandings, however, I suggest that you add "Photo unretouched” under every picture where that is indeed the case. Have fun with your dog!


DIR Retouching Policy

For the record, Dogs in Review will not retouch any dog in a photograph and does not knowingly accept editorial photographs that have been retouched. However, we cannot dictate what photographs advertisers use in their own paid space. It is strongly recommended that the notice "Photograph unretouched” be added when applicable.


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