A Retoucher’s World


Karolina Kurkova by Tesh.

Retouching, has become a hot button issue within fashion circles. 2009 could go down as the year of Photoshop scandals; whether it is Demi Moore’s supposedly missing hip on the cover of W; or airbrushed to oblivion models, in posters for Ralph Lauren, people noticed something awry. While the outcry over retouching was especially vocal,  little has been said by those involved directly in the creative process. To get a better understanding of just how the very public retouching accidents happened, MDC sat down with retoucher, Jason Tuchman. As founder of Pistol Studios, Jason is responsible for some of the most high profile retouching in the business: you may not know his name but you’ve certainly seen his seamless work everywhere from ads to editorials. In our exclusive interview, Jason explains the constraints of retouching and shares what its future may hold. (Interview by Betty Sze, all images courtesy of Pistol Studios)

MDC: What are your thoughts on the retouching backlash?

JT: It all comes down to what every industry is coming down to: budget. Everyone is cutting budgets so the high end retouchers like myself are not getting the budget we used to- or the time to do our work. Now that we’re getting less time- it’s harder to produce beautiful and natural images. Also with the budget cut people are using in house retouchers- junior retouchers to do the work which should be done by senior retouchers. When you get people like that you end up with airbushed images. Everything looks like crap- people are too skinny, the skin is a mess.


Alessandra Ambrosio by Todd Barry
MDC: How does something like the much talked about Ralph Lauren ads happen? Who is to be held responsible?

JT: Nobody. I’m not going to point my finger at the retoucher, I don’t know who the retoucher was and it might not have been their fault. But you know that game you played in kindergarten- telephone? In the advertising industry there is such a large chain of command. Imagine the top, top level says the model looks slightly large- slightly- not even that much (holds two fingers very close together). So it gets passed to the next person and the next person and by the time you get to the retoucher the message is, she’s morbidly obese. Especially now when peoples’ jobs are on the line- the message is skewed. Someone like me, who has been in the industry forever- would not take off that much and would say – no- it will make her body proportion look off and it will be unnatural (to retouch too much). Someone that is at a junior level will not know how to interpret properly and will literally translate the message. It’s not the retoucher‘s fault, it’s not the art director’s fault- it’s misinterpretation.

MDC: What is the future of retouching?

JT: The future of retouching is definitely going to incorporate 3D application. It’s a scary thought for me in what I do and for the photographers I work with. Why do you need a studio and a girl when you can create the girl and the location? Why spend all the money on a product- why hire a photographer and get catering and a studio when it can be made in 3D? We’re not there yet- I give it another 5 years. There are companies that are dabbling in it- I’m not dabbling in it yet because the technology isn’t good enough. I have a 3D background so I will know when it will be realistic enough. When it is good enough and people start really using it- it will change the face of modern photography and retouching and advertising. Whether it’s going to be good or bad, it’s going to happen. In movies now it’s taking place- half of Hollywood are guys sitting behind computers creating characters.


John Varvatos for Converse by Keiran O’Connor.

MDC: What is the process when working with the clients?

JT: Depends whether it’s an advertising job or not. Obviously you want to do physically good retouching but a large part of it is interpreting retouching comments. One art director might say one word and another art director on the same job might say something else but they mean the same. So it’s our job to properly interpret what they want. Once the brain interprets, you have to physically execute the idea. That’s the job of a good retoucher; chain of commands, mark ups, listening for the mark ups, executing the mark ups beautifully and making sure the integrity of the photograph is there. Because at the end of the day I want to have a beautiful looking product- everyone does- the art director does, the photographer does. I have to make sure what I deliver is what everyone envisioned in their head. Even though everyone envisioned something a little different- I want to give everyone a little bit of what they want.

MDC: Why do you think there is such a big debate about retouching?

J: Because of the bad retouching going on. They’re pushing retouchers to the limit. I don’t think it can get much worse. Quality is going out the window and everything will become a 24 hour print shop. In…. out. Which is upsetting to me because it’s my field and what I love to do. It’s kind of degrading.

MDC: What do you think about retouchers receiving credit in editorials alongside photographers?

J: I like it. Retouching used to be taboo. Retouching has been done since the dawn of photography. These days retouchers do so much to the image, I think they deserve a lot of credit. But a lot of people influence the image- hair/ make up- there are so many people involved in an image, the credit list would be huge. So I think it depends on the image. I think if it’s a severe image- in an aesthetic, creative way- then retouchers should be credited because they obviously worked a lot on the image. But I don’t think retouchers are more important than anyone else. So I understand that we can’t always get credit, but I think it should be image dependent.


Gisele Bundchen by Kutlu Ertan.
MDC: Can you give us your background in retouching?

Jason: I started off in a family full of retouchers, they did hand retouching traditionally before computers, so I was exposed to it my whole entire life.  That’s not necessarily how I did it, but my whole life that’s all I watched, photo retouching from dyes to negs [negatives], very old school, before computers.  So I understood the concepts from it, my whole entire life. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do.  I was lucky enough when I was 17 or 18 to get a job at what the time was one of the top companies in the world.  It was almost like an all-star cast of retouchers because there were so few companies that people who worked at this specific company were the best retouchers in the world. Everyone’s branched off now, but at that one point in time I was sitting in a room with the top retouchers around.  I was 18 and new to it, this was my first job. I was learning techniques that you can’t learn in school, techniques that were proprietary to a lot of people who worked there, and then over the years I’ve developed techniques of my own that no one knows about, like my own proprietary styles.  That was pretty much my background in retouching.

MDC: Can you expound on that work experience being so young at a company like that first company.

Jason: You will never get a company like that company was when I worked there- with the top retouchers in the world-, ever again because they are too many retouching companies now.  It was really a great experience, and the cool experience about it was, that I WAS so young. I’m still one of the youngest in the industry because I just started off so young, but back then, they used to call me “Wonder Child” there because I was 18 years old working on Steven Meisel’s images.  The reality was, it was the dawn of the digital age, so no one knew what the hell they were doing, even the people who’ve been retouching by hand for 20 years, or the people who’ve been retouching on these other proprietary systems before Photoshop… everybody was new.  And in some ways, that was why I was blossoming because I was just getting into computer work myself. I almost knew more about Photoshop than they did, because in high school I was such an introvert, all I did was stay at home and teach myself Photoshop.  And these guys weren’t even learning Photoshop yet.  So, we were all kind of learning digital together. We were all babies in a growing field.  It was a really fun time, it was exciting.

MDC: What do you think about the common used phrase heard on set “Oh we’ll just have the retoucher clean it up.”

JT:  God bless them because I make more money that way!  But the reality is, is that people, they have such the mentality now that “Oh the retoucher will fix it,” that they don’t do it on set, like, taking care of fly away hairs or dirty floors. They used to pin the clothes so it would fit the model nicely.  Now they don’t do any of that stuff, now they’re like, “Oh we’ll just do it in post [production].”   But that goes back to the quality issue which we talked about before.  Let’s say you give me 4 hours to complete an image, which is still, compared to what it used to be, it should have been 15 hours, but you give me 4 hours.  That 4 hours I probably could’ve made that image look stunning, beautiful.  But now you’ve taken all that time to have me cleaning floors and fixing clothes and removing bad fly away hairs that someone good could have just went in there and just went (acts out fixing an imaginary hair).  You know what I mean?   Those are quick things to do. So it’s like, you have to pick and choose.  Do you want me to make an image look beautiful, or do you want me to just to clean the damn thing up because you were too lazy on set to do a lot of the things you should have?  You know, even lighting… people doing bad lighting.  “Oh we’ll do the mood and the color in photoshop”.  It’s like, capture it in the camera, get the feel, you know, let me take something and make it stunning.   Something you’ve already made stunning and make me do something different to it to make it even better, as opposed to just fixing up peoples’ lazy mistakes.

MDC:  What did you say to me before?  You said that anyone with a clone stamp tool…

JT: Anyone with a copy of Photoshop calls themselves a retoucher now.  You know they don’t realize that, I can’t speak for most people, but I think I can speak for myself, that I’ve spent my whole life honing this craft, it’s all I’ve done.  You know, these new people did a little bit here and there, messed around with their friends’ photos, and now they’re going around literally getting business cards made; so and so is a retoucher.  It’s like, you’re not a retoucher, you know how to use a little bit of Photoshop maybe…. You clone out a pimple, remove a little redeye, maybe do a little skin retouching.  God forbid you know how to color correct, all they understand is contrast, which to me, a good photograph is the opposite, it’s not contrast.  Then unfortunately, you know, as the industry shifts, the old people leave, the young people come in, the young people are only exposed to the hacks.  They’ve never seen good retouching.  Their idea of good retouching IS what these people are showing them, they think that is retouching.  You know, they see stuff like ours and then they’re blown away, and then they understand.  But then they hear our price, and they’re like, “That’s insane.”  But… that’s what you pay for.


Jason Tuchman, founder of Pistol Studios.

  1. its a rotten industry! they sell dreams that people dare to believe nowadays! i hope Natalia Vodianova can still make thousands of dollars 5 years from now! can u imagine how dreadful she would look in 3D?? models are becoming more and more disposable! too bad =/

  2. Thanks so much for saying the truth about retouching. And pointing out the differnce between hack, canned action retouching, rank amatuer cloners and the art of retouching and color corrections.
    I also learned in the dinosaur times of dye transfer and etching silver off prints. The pressure was on the photographer and makeup artist to get it as perfect as possible on the negative so less would have to be changed later. I love the tools in Photoshop and as a makeup artist love having the ability to make the images even more perfect, but I really like to respect the orignal photo as the photographer intended but sometimes it becomes my art on not theirs any longer. (PS user since 4.0)

  3. What a pile of Rubbish – to say that fashion will be replaced by computer generated models is just plain tosh. Fashion is fake enough as it is – take the humans out of it and it will fall in a heap, only being bought by computer geeks salivating madly over renderings. Who in their right mind wants to look at cgi girls that don’t exist?


  4. I find his explanation that it’s nobody’s fault, and it’s a misinterpretation rather strange. The top level he mentioned should OK the final result, so if their feedback was misinterpreted, they should notice that. When it is the official ad campaign of a very famous brand, someone must be there to OK the final result, so to say no one is to blame is pretty silly in my opinion.

  5. That’s why I like to see polaroids and snap-shot images of models; it brings them back down to the level of mere mortals. You see that their features and skin are not perfect. But when you see them in the ads, there is so much lighting/editing that it makes them look supernaturally flawless. Which they arent.

    I remember Cindy Crawford used to talk a lot about how the fashion world is fake, about selling an illusion. And how that she too wishes she looked like she does in those catalogs.

  6. The move to 3D is coming. I am studying Media, Communications and Culture in University and thats basically what the lecturer said this week. Its so creepy to be reading it here.

  7. To Homotography,

    Not sure what you do but since he works with all those major clients in the exact area we are talking about, I’m pretty sure he knows what he’s talking about.


  8. Yeah, Gisele is beautiful in the picture, Gisele is the über model of the world and whatsoever, but that’s a bit beyond the point of the article. Did You guys even read it or even the topic?

  9. You cannot blame the retoucher for delivering a “fake” look to consumerism. If it’s what the art director/photographer wants than that is what will be delivered. I’m tired of people blaming retouchers for creating the whole “fake” or “skinny” aesthetic. It’s what sells and as long as people eat it up and buy whatever is being sold in these “fake” images, art directors or whomever will keep on using what works.

    It’s our fault and there is no point in complaining about the “fake” aesthetic that most shit magazines hawk anyway. Even so, I congratulate these retouchers for doing a fine job in making us believe in the whole flawless/skinny appeal. What we should really be congratulating, however, is people in fashion who actually make an effort to get everything as flawless as possible out of camera so the retoucher can go to work to improve upon that imagery to make an iconic image.

  10. i think retouchers do deserve credit, and this was a good interview. seems like a good guy. but, most of the retouchers i know speak as if they’re just as important as the photographer. they speak like the image is theirs.
    in my opinion, unless there is serious creative work being done to an image, he who cleans everything up plays the same role as a janitor. a vital role, yes. but still.

  11. His reply to “fix it in post” is great to hear, and should be printed on little nerf balls to throw at people who say “fix it in post”

    I also disagree with what he said about the Ralph Lauren image. Someone went bonkers with the retouching and convinced everyone else it was “ok.” and silly them, they fell for someone else’s bad taste. That’s what it boils down to.

    Also, thinking about how much money a Ralph Lauren ad takes to produce, they’re very, very UGLY ads period. (I’m not talking about the model here) And although, the photographer really should be in charge, it’s not always the case these days with ADs and everyone else viyng for position on the ranks.

    It sounds like he made a very smart response to a situation where he knows no details, and made an educated guess keeping it pretty politically safe. It definitely is hard to say ONE person messed up, it is team work after all.

  12. I as well think that someone who takes the time to retouch photos up deserves credit along side the photographers, art directors etc.

    There are times when I myself have said those words “We’ll just fix it in photoshop” and the guys who can do it I owe everything to.

    Jay Gambino Esparza
    Fashion Photographer

  13. yes to the power of photoshop!!!!!
    We all love to look beautiful. I am sure who say that retouching is
    fake should take a closer look at what they have posted up on face book.

  14. a lot of the interview is just advertising himself. Thats too bad because basic point he is making are true if not new at all.

    Sure there will be models made in 3d but’s thats really part of illustration which has been around since forever anyway. I’m fine with it – its gonna create a need for real looking models . I have a feeling that the beauty picture shown here and the Giselle picture will be seen as rather “artifical” in 10 years time.

    Actually – the Giselle picture looks like an outdated 80ies picture even right now.(more the fault of the photographer and the beauty industry then the retoucher though)

  15. “The best way to get a perfect photo out of Photoshop is to bring a perfect photo into Photoshop.”
    Pete Bauer
    Author, Photoshop for Dummies

  16. honestly, i don’t see what’s so difficult about retouching. i’ve had to reconstruct artist tears practically from nothing in addition to some retouching jobs. i don’t think it’s that hard and i shake my head and 99% of these botched retouching jobs

  17. can’t believe they used giseles ad as the headline, lol I actually thought it looks exactly like her and is far from getting the point across of “photoshop overkill” they should use Loreal or maybelline ads, lol.

  18. Very nice to hear from a professional in this area. About 3D replacing people, that’s really scaring and i must say it’s quite possible too. Bad to know our world is becoming so unreal that people won’t soon make any difference on that. We’re all becoming machines… sad to watch.
    But i still believe on people making the difference. We great professionals have to work on that and do our job correctly… who is intelligent enough will notice the big deal it means in the end, to have a real well-done job.

  19. To be fair, I think this guy sounds like a nice person, and his work isn’t bad. It’s worth noting, he’s as hyperbolic as any midlevel player in the fashion game today. My pet peeve in the middle ranks of the fashion business is that everyone poses as a top player, but they’re typically middle/lower middle players. It’s all about, “I work on top level campaigns for top level clients, top, top, top.” But the top isn’t very big, nor does this guy’s company handle top photographers and top campaigns. That distinction is actually quantifiable, and his work is quantifiably mid level. So I guess we gotta adjust the meaning of top and high-end for this article? Let’s agree that for this entry “high-end” and “top” basically mean anything in business within the industry? That way we wont have to split hairs trying to figure out whether Mert and Marcus are doing better than Inez and Vinoodh, or whether if you make the 25th most money in the industry you’re still in league with the guy who’s ranked 10, and, heaven forbid, if you’re doing fine in the middle how you could possibly compare with the guys who are heavy-lifting the prestige clients, racking up the mind-boggling branding pages that everyone so covets. Wow, I really woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. But am I a top 25 hater? Probably not. Though, I’d bet I’m quantifiably top 1,000 easily.

  20. Thanks for sharing this interview with this talented retoucher.
    I ve also heard about this 3D techniques here in Sweden, but for now only to create products.
    I can t imagine what it would look like when 3D is trying to describe the compositions of the artists (Photographers, Models, MUA, Stylist, Retouchers among others) the way the photo makes it with expressions, feeling and motions..
    Keep it real.

  21. I don’t like it. I think this is completely crap.

    It’s a lie, we can buy any product nowadays and we’ll never get such hair or such skin.

    Unfair, completely unfair. Go to hell retouchers.

  22. I am commenting from someone who has uses retouchers frequently. Jason Tuchman seems to be very well spoken in the way the industry works and where it is headed. He is speaking from a place where he does not compromise the image to his benefit. I have been in this business for many years, and have been through many retouchers with my photographers, based upon this retouching houses’ reputation, I feel he has a pulse on the industry.

    I am a true believer that a professional photographer will not need to “fix it” in retouching. That is not what a retouchers main skill is. They are to be utilized to beautify the image and collaborate with the photographer on the final look.

  23. There is no turning back. We must embrace the technology. However, makeup artists are getting worse, photographers can’t shoot-photoshop is now threatened….

  24. I have had the honor of having Pistol studios alter my reality and let me tell you, it tingles oh so wonderfully.
    Somewhere between reducing my self esteem to virtually zero and making me feel fat lies Jason Tuchman.
    A mild mannered clean smelling chap who always has the highest level of personal hygiene.
    His love for his four legged friends is second only to his love for being the devil with a wacom tablet, long live the pixel pushers for they shall inherit the earth, or at least the industry.
    Move over Max Headroom, the dawn of the virtual model is upon us, but cheer up photogs, there will always be room for Holga and Lomo happy snapshot accidents, you won’t make a dime off it but shame on you all if your not doing it for the love. On second thought, worry.
    All the lazy “do it in post” shooters, now is time to pay up the debt you owe.
    Well Virginia, there may not actually be a Santa Claus, but there is a Hanukkah Harry, and his name is Jason.

  25. I think in the future the photographer will be the helping hand to the post production company (at least for the advertising industry). Not the other way around (like now). Check out my blog for retouch studio listing. 95% of the studios have a CGI department.


  26. I was a retoucher in Los Angeles for 30yrs. and have performed miracles on film and print with a good brush, dyes and lot of secrets that will dye with me. What I see in photography is all the character, soul and emotion is being removed. What makes a great retoucher is knowing what to remove, what to enhance and what to leave. Character!

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