Beauty Marketing in the Times of Photoshop

Over the past 25 years, the most important influence to the aesthetics of marketing has been Photoshop. Introduced as a tool to assist in lowering production costs, the software instead became part of the creative process of photographers. It allowed them to create new types of images that expanded our visual vocabulary and brought into question the way we view the world and each other. Forever changing our perspective on both.


Adobe made Photoshop available in February 1990. The company’s intention was to market it as a complement to their already popular graphic design software Illustrator to make possible to manipulate images. In retrospect, it is surprising that Adobe only expected modest sales.

At the time of the launch, digital retouching was offered by a handful of professionals at a price of $600 an hour. Sold for about $2,000 of today’s money, the software became immediately popular with photographers who started to include image corrections as part of their services. Suddenly, everything, in every photograph, could be made to appear perfect.

Implications were huge.

Collage of images: Top image - Two women on bikes with rocket launch in background, Left Bottom - Woman exercising with stylized mountain background, Right Bottom - Two women in striped dresses
Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, pioneered blending digital technology with photography in the early 1990’s. Their breakthrough work was most influential in the type of images that would be used in marketing a decade later.

Essential as a Camera.

At first, photographers used Photoshop to carry out the same changes to pictures that were being made with expensive Scitex stations. However, a few groundbreaking individuals made the editing software an integral part of their creative process – as important as the camera. Making changes to pictures became as essential as taking them. And it was then that the Photoshop era really got started.

Top Image: Man and Woman mid-dance in 50s style kitchen, Bottom Image: Woman in suburbs holding giant inflatable hotdog
David LaChapelle’s hyper-realistic photographs. Filled with fantasy, humor and subversive social commentary. His photographs were widely emulated around the world.

By the mid-nineties an entirely new type of image started to appear in the pages of fashion magazines. These photographs had a collage like quality, used over-saturated colors and, generally, staged fantastic situations to make social commentary of the times. Because the pictures made no attempt to represent reality, the term “surreal” was used to describe them. Photographers David LaChapelle, Nick Knight, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin created some of the best – and most influential – work of the period. In different degrees, the style was quickly emulated around the world, and by the end of the nineties it was being used to market nearly every product sold under the sun.

Woman in pink smiling with lipsticks and nail polish on the right
By the end of the century the editorial trend had become mainstream. For their 2000 campaign, Revlon photographed products separately and assembled them so as to create situations that challenged gravity, perspective and scale.
Left Image: Liquid blush caught mid-splash exiting its bottle, Right Image: Woman with cloud of pink dust-like cloud caught mid-motion
Photoshop made it simpler to create pictures of moments the naked eye cannot grasp. Advertising used this ability to market all type of products and a new area of photography specialization was started: kinetic.

Fantasy Once Again.

By the beginning of the new century, in reaction to the widespread use of the style, magazines started to show photography of people in everyday situations. Following the oldest of photographic traditions, what made these pictures strong was the beauty of the people in them – the beauty of the place, or the magic of the moment. The work of Peter Lindbergh and Mario Testino is most representative of this brief and brilliant interval in the times of Photoshop.

Collage of photoshopped stylized women (elongated legs, necks and heavily stylized makeup)

Around 2004, a second well-defined style of Photoshop-influenced images began to appear. As a way of giving pictures an edge, photographers had started to make slight modifications to perspective and proportions in pictures. At the beginning changes were inconspicuous, but quickly these enhancements become a style of its own. And, whether is because of the nature of what the software makes possible to do, or a signal of what our culture is about, the images used in marketing become about exaggeration and fantasy again.

Reflecting the popular culture of the time, models were transformed into Anime-like characters. Implausible long necks and legs, enormous luminous eyes, gleaming skin. It has been these playful pictures that, in more recent years, have caught the rage of advertising industry watchdog groups, and caused the otherwise obscure raster graphics editing software to transcend the media industry and spur a debate of far-ranging social implications.

Collage of Images: Some with makeup product stylized, others with models with photoshopped clothing and/or backgrounds
It has been twenty-eight years since Photoshop become an influence in photography. By now, most of us can tell when a photograph is an idealized illustration to be interpreted as a symbol or a literal record.

Verb and Adjective.

Be that as it may, as we now enter the age of the Smartphone-influenced marketing image, Photoshop was the most powerful factor in shaping the way marketing images looked for a generation. In the hands of artists, it expanded our visual traditions. And as it was originally intended, it indeed helped to lower marketing production costs.

Established as a part of our culture, we use Photoshop as a verb and as an adjective. The images it helped create brought into the public mind questions about the way we view the world and what is real. Present in every cell phone, it now gives everybody the ability to critically comment on images in the media landscape. Fundamentally changing the traditional relationship between media creators and media consumers.

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