Photo retoucher, highlighting a craft in the shadows
Dominique Couto, retoucher for the photographic agency of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Grand Palais
It's already been 15 years since the Agency converted to digital. As a forerunner in the field, it was able to tackle the challenges of this revolutionary technological transition rapidly . In moving from film to digital production, the agency's employees had to adopt new professional practices. Such is the case for Dominique Couto, retoucher for the agency.
Mini-interview to discover this work in the shadows.
How would you define the profession of retoucher today?
Very simply, retouching consists of modifying images using retouching software. Professionals must know which changes to make to the image to make it as beautiful as possible. This work is even more important when these images are marketed, as is the case in a photographic agency.
You have to bear in mind that these days, all images are retouched. Whether it's simple retouching (removing spots from the scanner) or more complex (removing elements or moving them), from the moment we make changes to the original file, we talk about retouched photos.
What are the specificities of the profession as part of the Agency?
I am here to support the photographers. They come to see me for two main reasons: either the photographer lacks time to retouch their own photos, or the retouching is more complicated (nine times out of ten). The time spent on retouching a photo depends on the degree of changes to be made. I can spend 5 minutes, 3 hours or half a day, in some exceptional cases. The main specificity with the Rmn-GP is that you should never alter the content. For example, if the photographed work has physical deterioration, I do not retouch the deterioration. We do not touch the integrity of the work, but we work on what surrounds it, such as background or lighting for example.
Allegory of Queen Marie Leszczynska, bearing the medallion of Stanislas I Leszczynski (1771), Musée du Louvre, photos © RMN-Grand Plalais (musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux
How does the work between the retoucher and the photographer take place?
Once the shoot is done, the photographer comes to develop their photos at the agency. We discuss the rendering they require. To obtain the best result possible, I must be able to put myself in the photographer's shoes and visualise what they expect. It's a true collaboration between the photographer and the retoucher. But I must also work in line with the Agency's visual identity. With experience, I also take the initiative to make alterations that have not been requested but that seem beneficial to the work. Because the purpose of our job is to highlight works held in museums.
Is it always the same working process in collaboration with the photographer?
Sometimes the photographer comes to see me before shooting a work. This has recently been the case for the painting The Taking of the Smalah of Abd-el-Kader (Horace Vernet, 1845), held at Versailles. I travelled with him, to approve the photos directly on site and thus have fully exploitable files during my editing work.
Conversations around the conditions of the shooting of the painting The Taking of the Smalah of Abd-el-Kader (21.39 m wide and 4.89 m high) at the Palace of Versailles
How is a "typical" retouching job achieved, technically speaking?
We work using Photoshop © and we have graphic tablets. When possible, to facilitate my editing work, the photographer will produce 3 or 4 photos of the same work with different settings. So I will recover from each of these photos the elements necessary to constitute the best image possible. By cutting and superimposing all of these elements, I produce an image of the work that will be closest to reality.
Cabriolet / Sjees (18th century), Compiègne Musée de la voiture, Photos © RMN-Grand Palais (domaine de Compiègne) / Tony Querrec
What are the other working relationships within the agency?
Obviously I work with the agency's digital laboratory, and more particularly with Jennifer Leopole, responsible for the integration of images once they have been retouched.
In parallel, I also work with the agency's archivists. I keep them up-to-date with the photo campaigns I'm retouching, tell them when I've finished my work and when the images are ready to be integrated into our database.
What qualities are required to work as a retoucher?
If the work of a retoucher is well done, it should be invisible. You really have to be passionate about what you do. If you do not deeply love your job for what it is, you will not be able to be a good retoucher. It is a profession that exists in the shadows and to exercise it, the main quality is humility.
If the technical aspects are significant, you must also have a certain sense of aesthetics and above all do not hesitate to make proposals. But that comes with experience. We can better understand the expectations and better visualise the purpose of the work. With this same experience, you have almost no technical constraints.
This mini-interview highlights retouching activities within our Agency.