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Image Tampering, Retouching, and Synthetic Beauty: A Curricular Unit

9 August 2009 / pedagogy, reference

Image Retouching: A Critical Approach for Media Arts Educators
I developed the following course unit on image tampering, retouching and manipulation for my Introduction to the Electronic Media Studio (EMS1) class at Carnegie Mellon. The semester course is intended for first-year students with little or no computer experience, and serves the purpose of introducing students to basic media-editing tools. The emphasis in the course is not on technical mastery but on understanding digital media technologies as tools for creative cultural practice.

The loosely-organized materials I’ve cited below provide starting points for discussions about image manipulation from several perspectives, including: photojournalistic standards of truthtelling; the construction of idealized beauty in vernacular advertising; and the early history of 19th-century photocollages as an extension of narrative romantic painting. I’m grateful to Paolo Pedercini and Rich Pell for their pointers to some of the resources below.

Unit Learning Outcomes:
To demonstrate development of skills in the use of techniques for pixel-based (bitmap) image acquisition, editing, compositing, and output. To demonstrate an awareness of the issues surrounding photographic “truth” and verifiability in the digital era.


Examples of historic photographs, artworks and hoax images produced in various ways through photomanipulation.



  • Roth, Evan (fi5e). Detouch. Interactive Processing applet. (+blog post). An interactive applet which allows the viewer to see exactly which pixels have been modified in a before/after retouching comparison.


Questions for Students

  1. In your opinion, what sorts of image manipulation techniques should be permissible in news images and photojournalism? Which ones shouldn’t? Why? Be specific.
  2. Suppose an interview article about you is being written for a major magazine, and the editors intend to print an accompanying full-page photograph of you. Would you prefer that the magazine professionally (that is, undetectably) retouch your image? If yes, to what extent — is there a limit?
  3. Identify an artwork (image) which was clearly produced through digital manipulations of photographic source materials. Work to find one that you admire. In your opinion, what makes the image effective as an artwork?

Assignment 1. Glamorization and Aging
From Paolo Pedercini.

  1. Photograph yourself in front-on close up view using a digital camera.
  2. Retouch the image to look as “beautiful” or “handsome” as possible according to the glossy magazine standards of beauty.
  3. Age your original portrait to look at least 20 years older. Take inspiration from your parents.

Assignment 2. A Fiction or A Forgery

Create your choice of (A) a fiction or (B) a forgery. Be clear about which of these you have chosen. For the purposes of this assignment: A fiction is a depiction of something derived from your imagination. It depicts something we all would agree is not true, but for which we nonetheless happily suspend our disbelief, because the “reality” it portrays is so interesting or provocative. A fiction asks the question: “What if….?” A forgery is an image which tells a lie. It depicts something which could indeed be true, and it attempts to hid or conceal any evidence or artifacts that would give away the lie. A viewer may doubt the truthfulness of the forgery, but would need to build an argument using external evidence to disprove it. A forgery asks the question: “Did you know….?” Note: The most important challenge of this assignment is to tell a story with an image you’re constructing. Whether that story is from your imagination (a fiction) or is a lie (a forgery) is less critical — since some images could be both a fiction and a forgery.

Consider the following strategies for how you might create your fiction/forgery:

  • Adding an element
  • Removing an element
  • Moving or dislocating an element
  • Duplicating an element
  • Modifying an element
  • Exchanging an element with something else

Looking for ideas? If you’re not certain where to begin, you could consider making a “chimera” — a creature which is composed of parts of other animals, such as a minotaur (bull+human), griffin (lion+eagle), or something of your own invention. Situate your chimera in its “natural” habitat, etc. Note: this does not imply that you are required to make a chimera.

Additional Recommendations: Unless you have a better idea, your image should involve you, somehow. Please use images from photographic sources. These could come from sources like: the web, your camera, a scanner, etc. I recommend that you use images from at least two different photographs to create your fiction/forgery. However, if your concept is very strong, it is conceivable that you could create your fiction/forgery by rearranging elements within a single source image. Develop your image at the highest resolution possible. A recommended final image size is at least 1600×1200, and preferably closer to 3000×2000. To be on the safe side, keep all of your original source files, as well as your Photoshop .PSD project file, until after the assignment has been submitted. Keep these somewhere safe, such as your “workfiles” directory!

To do well on this assignment, you’ll need to make a provocative fiction or a convincing forgery. Apart from your image, however, your work will also be judged on how completely you fulfilled the following checklist:

  • Your fiction/forgery image is done at high resolution.
  • You created a small, low-resolution thumbnail image.
  • You correctly linked your thumbnail image to your large image.
  • You wrote an accompanying text about your assignment.

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