Photo Clients

Is the Future Unretouched?

March 22, 2017

By Conor Risch

Has a client ever come to you with an assignment to photograph “real people”? Despite the ubiquity of the term, widely used in commercial photography to describe non-professional models, it seems odd. (Surely even models and actors are real people.) It’s a tacit acknowledgment that the majority of advertising is fake, created to sell products. This fiction is generally accepted, but in recent years the public has sought more truth in advertising, especially in the fashion and beauty industries, which have been criticized for promoting unrealistic ideals in their imagery, both through casting and through photo manipulation.

The negative psychological effects on women and girls of being bombarded with heavily retouched images of impossibly thin models are well documented. More than a decade ago, Dove launched its Campaign for Real Beauty in reaction, casting “real women,” with different body and skin types, in their ads. The campaign was by all accounts a success, and Dove and its agency, Ogilvy & Mather, continue to create new variations on the Real Beauty theme.

At the time Dove launched their Campaign for Real Beauty, a marketing expert told Adweek, “This is the tipping point. I think we are going to be seeing a lot more of this.” A glance through a current issue of Vogue suggests that prediction was a bit premature—high fashion is still mostly fiction. But in the last few years, other brands and magazines have joined the movement toward a more honest and inclusive concept of beauty, and models such as Iskra Lawrence have built successful careers and massive social followings by offering a positive alternative to the unreality often promoted by the fashion industry.

On the other side of the camera, photographers who’ve shot unretouched campaigns and editorials find the creative process refreshing and the work meaningful.

© John Urbano

John Urbano shot the first three “Aerie Real” campaigns for American Eagle’s Aerie brand of lingerie. © John Urbano

John Urbano shot the first three of the unretouched “Aerie Real” campaigns for American Eagle’s Aerie brand of lingerie and apparel, starting in spring 2014. “The girl in this photo has not been retouched,” declared the ads. “The real you is sexy.”

That first effort presented a couple of challenges, Urbano recalls, but they weren’t in lighting or technique. Urbano, who describes himself as “more of a natural light photographer,” approached lighting the women just as he would for any other shoot. “I just think our lighting was more on, we had to be 100 for 100, we couldn’t be 99 for 100,” he says.

The need to get everything in camera wasn’t any greater than normal, either. “When you’re doing this professionally there’s always an added stress to get everything in camera because you want to be able to hand it over to the client and have it look great with minimal amount of work,” he says.

There was, however, more anxiety for executives because it was “a big statement,” he recalls. Even though he’d shot for Aerie for four years, producing 17 campaigns, this was a new proposition for them. For Urbano, it was akin to his personal work. Throughout his career, he’s always photographed “real women,” particularly athletes. The majority of the images in his book of black-and-white film photographs of women, John Urbano 1, were unretouched. (He’d shown that book to American Apparel chief marketing officer Michael Leedy, and a year and a half later they asked him to work on the first “Aerie Real” campaign.)

The shoot did create a “different feeling for the models,” Urbano says. Though some of the women cast for the shoot had modeled before, they weren’t underwear models. “Quite a few” of the women were initially hesitant because they were being asked to pose in lingerie and knew the images wouldn’t be retouched. But, Urbano says, “once they embraced the idea and were on set, they loved it and were into it.”

That some of the women weren’t experienced models ended up adding to the energy of the shoot. “As long as there’s a comfort level there, I think a real innocence and a real spirit can be captured,” Urbano says.

“This movement of things not being retouched and [advertisers working with real people rather than professional models], whether it’s for lingerie or Craftsman tools, I think that it’s cool and the fact that the image is honest is refreshing to me,” Urbano adds.

© Heather Hazzan/

From the All Woman Project, a social media campaign created by models Clementine Desseaux and Charli Howard and shot by Heather Hazzan and Lily Cummings. © Heather Hazzan/

Last year, when models Clementine Desseaux and Charli Howard created the All Woman Project, a social media campaign that features ten models of different shapes, sizes and skin colors posing individually and collectively, they invited photographer Heather Hazzan to contribute to the project. Hazzan says she typically shoots women “of all shapes and sizes in a natural, minimal, undone style,” allowing her to “see and connect to their natural beauty,” so the project was in line with her interests. Hazzan invited Lily Cummings, a photographer who shares her esthetic, to work on the shoot with her, which they did in a studio with “beautiful natural light,” Hazzan recalls.

The images show the models posing in swimwear and lingerie, presenting a counterpoint to the fashion industry’s “myth that beautiful people don’t have pimples, or stretch marks or rolls when they sit down,” Hazzan says. Media outlets from Huffington Post to Vogue have covered the project, and the positive response is thanks to the campaign’s ability to “debunk” fashion’s fictions, Hazzan believes. “It was an eye-opener for some women to see that it was actually some of the smaller-sized models who had the most stretch marks,” she says. Her close-ups of Howard were “some of my more well-received images,” she adds. “I think that’s because it’s nice to know that a striking, size-four model can also have rolls and stretch marks.”

Hazzan says that “some of the models were nervous about a completely unretouched shoot, because it’s so different from the majority of their jobs…. But since they were in it together and believed in the project, it was more empowering than anything else.”

Lifestyle and portrait photographer Melanie Acevedo started working for Dove last year and has done three shoots for the brand in India, Brazil and China. The campaigns feature women of different ages and body types photographed against white seamless. “Let’s Break the Rules of Beauty,” reads the tagline on the India print ads.

The fact that Dove only retouches to remove temporary blemishes didn’t change her photographic approach, Acevedo says. “I try to make everyone look their best with lighting, and also with the way I deal with them on set. I try to embrace who they are and create a sense of comfort and ease and enjoyment in front of the camera.

“The discussion about retouching is something that happens far more in fashion photography,” she adds, “and frankly for people who don’t really fucking know how to light their subjects very well…. I know how to light people to make them look good, it doesn’t matter if I’m going to retouch them or not.”

Related: Melanie Acevedo on Lighting For Natural Beauty on Assignment for Dove

© Melanie Acevedo

For “The Sum of Our Beauty,” an editorial in Darling magazine, photographed by Melanie Acevedo. © Melanie Acevedo

Ogilvy & Mather approached Acevedo for the campaign after seeing an editorial project she did with Darling, a Los Angeles-based magazine that has a strict no-retouching policy. For the editorial “The Sum of Our Beauty,” Acevedo worked with a writer to interview and photograph 35 women, ages 13 to 93, over the course of two days. The result was a series of portraits and a short video in which the women discuss their ideas of beauty. “We made it a special, glorious celebration of their individuality and their beauty,” Acevedo recalls. Ogilvy & Mather and Dove wanted something similar.

“In the creative discussions, we were touching a lot upon the subject of beauty, and how that definition is so subjective,” Acevedo recalls. “No matter who you ask, you’re going to get a different answer.”

When they were casting for Dove’s Real Beauty shoots, Acevedo recalls, the focus was on representing the diversity of beauty in each place. For example, “In India they have really specific ideas about what they think is beautiful: It’s the light skin, it’s the long hair, etc. What [the client] wanted to do is show how beauty is everywhere in India.”

Acevedo says her work for Darling and for Dove is “something that I have been working my way up to.” As she’s gotten older, she’s “started thinking about beauty in a different way than I had before,” she explains, and has realized “that there was an essence of beauty that was not defined by the face, but by the insides and what the person was really about, and what their message is and how they lived their life.”

Hazzan says it is the All Woman Project’s inclusivity that she most appreciates. While the fashion industry might feature plus size models in a campaign or magazine cover, “it’s rare that [plus size and straight size models] are booked together for a campaign. We don’t need to separate groups of women from each other. I’d love to see the seamless integration of all sizes, shapes, hues and ways of being a woman in the same jobs.”

For Urbano, the Aerie campaign wasn’t just about real women, but also a different ideal of photography. “It takes a little more effort on everybody’s part to make something beautiful when you’re not able to take it into Photoshop and chop the shit out of it,” Urbano says. “When you’re able to achieve something [without retouching] that in my opinion is just as beautiful” as a typical, post-processed ad, “I feel like you’ve done it in more of an old school way, and I think anytime you can get back to the roots and get back to the whole reason we’re taking pictures, that’s a good thing.”

Are we seeing the tipping point in the trend toward less-manipulated imagery and a more inclusive ideal of beauty? “I hope so,” Acevedo says. “If you just look on social media, there are all kinds of different women’s groups from all over the world talking about embracing the self and embracing the true being and embracing real beauty. It’s everywhere.”


How Kate Parker’s “Girl Power” Images Helped Launch her Commercial Career

How to Get the Natural Look of Sunlight—Anywhere