SELF speaks out about Kelly Clarkson photo retouching

Sept09.SELF.cover.72dpi.jpgDO WE RETOUCH? YES!

Last Friday, the Internet was abuzz with the fact that I answered the question, did you Photoshop the September issue cover photo of Kelly Clarkson? with the answer: Yes. Of course we do retouching (though it's technically not Photoshop, but that is semantics). We correct color and other aspects of the digital pictures we take and then publish the best version we can. Here is what I have to add to this conversation:

When I ran the marathon five years ago, I was so proud of myself for completing it in under five hours and not walking a single step. But my hips looked big in some of the photos (I was heavier then), so when I wanted to put one of them on the editor's letter in SELF, I asked the art department to shave off a little. I am confident in my body, proud of what it can accomplish, but it just didn't look the way I wanted in every picture.

This is still true even when I'm all dressed up at a party or wedding or other event-there are pictures where I think I was captured looking my best, and those when I look pretty awkward (midsentence or whatever). I only keep the pix where I look my best.

The same is true of vacation. I keep the pix that show us all happy and glowing and laughing and playing, not the ones where we are scowling or hungry or tired. The ones that make the Christmas card are the best of the best.

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Pictures are meant to tell a story, express a feeling, convey an emotion or capture a moment. Portraits like the one we take each month for the cover of SELF are not supposed to be unedited or a true-to-life snapshot (more on that in a moment). When the cover girl arrives at the shoot, she is usually unmade up and casually dressed, and could be mistaken for a member of the crew or the editorial team in many cases. Once we do her makeup and hair, and dress her in beautifully styled outfits and then light her, we then set the best portrait photographer we can on a road to finding a pose and capturing a moment that shows her at her best. This usually involves music for her to relax to, props, painted backdrops or locations that create a natural context. Then the shoot starts and after about 100 images are snapped, there are outfit changes and more lighting adjustments, more hair touch-ups and fans blowing, etc. The scene is truly amazing to watch and there are often two dozen people on set.

Then we edit the film and choose the best pictures. This is done in tandem with the star; the creative director, Cindy Searight; the photographer; and myself. Then we allow the postproduction process to happen, where we mark up the photograph to correct any awkward wrinkles in the blouse, flyaway hair and other things that might detract from the beauty of the shot. This is art, creativity and collaboration. It's not, as in a news photograph, journalism. It is, however, meant to inspire women to want to be their best. That is the point.

See what Kelly actually looks like in the behind the scenes cover shoot video!


Kelly has this amazing spirit, the kind of joie de vivre that certain people possess that makes you want to stand closer to them, hoping that you can learn what they know. In this case, you get the feeling Kelly has not let fame spoil her, but also that she was just born confident, with a generosity of spirit that is all about others and rarely about herself. She is, like her music, giving and strong and confident and full of gusto. Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best. Did we publish an act of fiction? No. Not unless you think all photos are that. But in the sense that Kelly is the picture of confidence, and she truly is, then I think this photo is the truest we have ever put out there on the newsstand. I love her spirit and her music and her personality that comes through in our interview in SELF. She is happy in her own skin, and she is confident in her music, her writing, her singing, her performing. That is what we all relate to. Whether she is up or down in pounds is irrelevant (and to set the record straight, she works out and does boot-camp-style training, so she is as fit as anyone else we have featured in SELF). Kelly says she doesn't care what people think of her weight. So we say: That is the role model for the rest of us.

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Oh, and by the way, today I would let my marathon picture run unaltered. Back when I started at SELF, I was always saying to photographers who would shoot me: "No pimples, no wrinkles, no thighs!" and they'd laugh and remind me I was the one editing the film! Then I realized I could always edit, crop out and correct anything I didn't like later. So I did. But now I video blog (with my little Flip camera) about triathloning and you see me looking like a nearly drowned kitten after a swim, or prerace nervous, or unlit and unmade up. Half the time I am shooting on zoom (inadvertently) and up my nostrils (can't get the angle right, got to hold camera higher!) and guess what? Now I don't care. Because I've gotten more confident in myself. I know what my body can do (thanks to training for triathlons) and that means more to me than how I look on any given day. Do I still get all made up and have my hair done for a portrait or TV appearance? You bet! (I try to even have my own pic taken at a cover shoot since that is when we have the best makeup and photographer and lighting. I'm no fool... use the best when you can get 'em! But I also know that there are times when you just want to be yourself, and that means no artifice. So pictures have different purposes...


You will notice the snapshot of Kelly and her sister Alyssa inside the mag later this month, and she took it with her phone and sent it to us. We ran it. It's a very bloggy moment, and they are both happy, lovely and "normal" looking. It could be any two girls just having fun together, who happen to look almost identical as sisters sometimes do when they're together. In that shot neither looks like a "glammed-up rock star," and that's what I loved about the picture. It's just Kelly and her sis, being themselves. Frankly, those are my favorite pictures, the ones that are snappy happy. My husband has given me an appreciation for the beauty of a snapshot. But that isn't a cover. A cover's job is to sell the magazine, and we do that, every month, thanks to our readers. So thank you.

Your job: Think about your photographs and what you want them to convey. And go ahead and be confident in every shot, in every moment. Because the truest beauty is the kind that comes from within.