Interview with Rebecca Manson: The Art & Heart of Retouching

Updated: Oct 31, 2018

Author Jenn Mishra

This week I interviewed professional photo retoucher Rebecca Manson about the art of retouching. We also talked about her own photography and how her volunteer work in natural disaster areas such as Iwate, Japan after the 2011 tsunami led to her enlisting an army of volunteers to help rescue and clean precious photos and family memories.

Becci is a much sought-after professional photo retoucher who has worked for some of the top photographers and brands. Clients of her retouching studio, The Post Office, include the likes of Mark Seliger, Christopher Griffith, Annie Leibovitz, and Claire Rosen – who introduced me to Becci’s work (Becci’s retouching work is on full display in Claire Rosen’s PhotoYoga Interview). She’s worked for brands such as Armani, IBM, and Showtime.

In short, Becci is a celebrity retoucher!

Becci describes herself as a post-production artist. I was very interested in understanding retouching as an art form and how she’s able to work with so many photographers with wildly different styles.

“Retouching is a dirty word these days, but it’s been around for many years. It’s an amazing art form that many people under-appreciate.

Back in the day, photographers would work with a master-printer. They’d develop a relationship over years. Part of the look of the images is in the post-processing - in the darkroom and now with Photoshop."

Becci directed me to a quote by Ansel Adams that still pertains today with the digital retoucher becoming a new version of a master-printer.

“The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.”

Retouching by Rebecca Manson

I was particularly interested in the balance between the technical and artistic sides of retouching. Becci explained:

"It depends on job whether it’s more artistic or technical. Clearing up skin, that sort of thing can be more technical, but most of the time it’s very artistic. I draw on my art background more than my photography side a lot of the time.

It’s really nice to be able to look at an image - the color, the tones – and see the image lends itself to going here. Let’s see what the photographer thinks. Often the photographer says, ‘This is great! I wouldn’t have taken it here.’ Other times they say, ‘That looks great, but that’s not what I was thinking.’ I have to be able to start again. The possibilities with images are endless - they can go to a million different places."

Becci often works with photographers over a long period of time. She notices - and is part of - the stylistic changes that occur as these artists evolve.

"The photographers I work with have a very developed style, but it still changes over time. I change with them. I see that they’re shooting differently. I feel a part of the whole process.

I challenge some of the photographers to look back over images they did many years ago. Reprocess an image and see how different it looks now. It’s amazing how different things can look. Experience changes. Styles change. Fashions in images change. In the 90s, we took out every flaw in skin. We don’t do that now."

As a very early user of Photoshop, Becci’s retouching grew with the digital technology emerging in the 1990s.

"When I left school, I got a job in London with a pre-print company. It was one of the first companies in London that had Photoshop. They said, ‘Here’s the manual – read it’. I started using Photoshop on my 2nd day of work and never stopped! (never did get around to reading that manual!)

In school, I was very good at drawing and art in general, and I understood photography - it seemed like the perfect mix of my passions and abilities.

Photoshop was so small back then. The more I used it, the more I could do. I got really lucky with some of the places I got work. I got to work with some of the best photographers quite quickly because I had Photoshop skills that not all the retouchers, who were working on the other digital systems or in analogue, had. It was a big advantage."

Retouching by Rebecca Manson

To help me understand how a retoucher thinks and works, Becci walked me through working with a photographer for the first time.

"When I’m first working with a photographer, there’s a learning process at the beginning. I look at their style and what they've shot before. I spend a lot time researching their work - their look, their feel. I talk with them about what they’re trying to put across. How they envisioned what they’re shooting. Understanding the photographer is a huge thing!

Each new photographer that comes along is a new adventure. Everyone has a different style. The images that come to me are so very different.

After a while, it becomes an unwritten language between us. We get to the point where it's a seamless process. I understand what each individual photographer wants and expects from me. My brain just clicks into place.

Sometimes the language the photographer or art directors use isn’t very technical, but it’s more about a feeling they want to put across. Shooting myself has helped me a lot with that."

Becci keeps her retouching work separate from her photography. She works with digital files in her retouching, but she most often photographs on film.

“I’ve been told that my photography is a cross between fine art and photojournalism. I’ve always had a lack of confidence in my photography. Professionally I’ve been doing retouching for 25 years. Having worked with some of the most famous and most influential photographers has affected my confidence in my own photography. I’ve been honored and lucky that people liked my work even though I only do it for myself.

Weirdly, I don’t retouch my own work. Only what I would do in darkroom.”

Much of Becci’s photography comes from her volunteer work in natural disaster areas to help cleanup efforts. Among other places, she traveled to Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake and Japan in 2011 after the tsunami. She’s also traveled to Zimbabwe to help reintroduce lions into the wild and also worked with HIV-positive orphans. These volunteer trips allow Becci to go to places she wouldn’t normally go to alone and also allowed her to get closer to the people. This closeness shows in her photography.

"In Zimbabwe, I was volunteering with an organization to help rehab and reintroduce lions into the wild. Working with the lions was fantastic! Part of us being there was working with orphans of HIV. There’s such a high rate in the area. We’d work and play with the children. Hang out and be there. It was fun for them and fun for us. We got to know the locals very well and it was easier to shoot when you’re part of a community. Cab drivers would recognize us. They knew we were here to help."

Haitian child. Photo by Rebecca Manson

During her volunteer work in Japan, she discovered a way to use her retouching skills to help salvage photos damaged by the natural disaster.

"The Japanese tsunami was on a scale no one has seen before. When we got there – I can’t describe how bad it was. I meant to go for 3 weeks and stayed for 6 months. A short time into my stay there I realized we could do a whole project just cleaning photos. There was a huge warehouse of photographs that had been found and turned in to the town. We hand-cleaned over 100,000 photos. We’d also scan images that had been damaged and reclaimed, to send to volunteer retouchers to fix - people who wanted to help but couldn’t go to Japan."

Becci’s mobilization of volunteers to help clean, fix, and reunite families with their photographic memories caught the attention of the folks at TED who asked her to speak about her experiences.

Watch Becci’s TED talk >>>

Aftermath of tsunami in Japan. Photo by Rebecca Manson

With young photographers, Becci focuses on helping them understand different ways images can look - why an image doesn’t go straight from camera to the printer. Retouching is a whole different thought process. She advocates using simple techniques.

“The majority of photographers need 2-3 things and they’ll be good. They don’t need to know more than that. Some people make software overly complicated. The images look overdone. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. Concentrate on mastering the basics first.”

Retouchers are often ignored or under-appreciated. Becci feels it’s important to acknowledge that nearly every photo we see is retouched.

"Everyone from the digital technician to hair stylist, gets credited on a photo, but not necessarily the retoucher. We’re pretending a whole industry doesn’t exist. Photography is a 2-part process.

Credit the retouchers and there will be less bad work out there. Call out the good work and people will start understanding that there is good work. Be honest about what is retouched. Retouchers will be more invested in the work."

Finally, I asked Becci my favorite question – what is a successful photograph? Her answer was spot-on.

"One that stops you turning the page or scrolling to the next image - it stops someone in their tracks. This counts for art, advertising, photojournalism, editorials…. This goes for both photography and retouching. The idea of a photograph is for people to look at it – however you have to do that. That’s the key to a successful picture.

A mistake photographers make is in the sentimentality of the edit – choosing the photos to post based on a personal attachment to the photo. This attachment doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good picture. Photographers need to think about what could stop someone from turning the page."

Retouching by Rebecca Manson

Becci’s photographs and her retouching work definitely fit her definition of successful photographs. I’ve gone back to her webpages again and again to see her work. Her passion for the art of retouching and for her social outreach shows in her art.

See more of Becci’s work on her photography website and at The Post Office or follow her on Instagram

Learn about retouching from Becci on Lynda >>>

See the following if you’re interested to learn more about volunteer retouching.

Watch video "Curiosity Magazine - From the Darkroom, a Light" >>>

Read ABC News article "Tsunami Damaged Photos Repaired by Volunteers Around the World" >>>

Read NPR story "In Japan, Restoring Photos for Tsunami Victims" >>>

More Interviews from Influential Female Photographers >>>

** This post may contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.

Article Written by Jennifer Mishra

Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

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