As far as photoshopping goes, there have been some major fails in recent history, but Lady Gaga's new Versace campaign is not a particularly egregious example. That's not because the retouching isn't obvious (it is). Rather, it's because the art direction here was clearly going for a strange, overly perfect vibe. That's not necessarily a bad thing, when the mark between achievable, aspirational, and just plain extraterrestrial is clear. It's a valid aesthetic decision, and one that is often made by luxury brands.
So, the unretouched images of Gaga in full Donatella regalia aren't exactly shocking (check them out for yourself above). But, the photos, which appeared on Gaga Fresh News this week, are jarring because they are quite different, and not in the typical ways you'd expect. She hasn't been dramatically slimmed or lightened or de-pimpled. They've even left her tattoos. The interesting thing is they've basically used Photoshop instead of makeup here, giving her a whitewashed look for the photos and then adding some color and dewiness in after the fact.
This does raise a lot of questions about when retouching is appropriate, though. Previously, that discussion has been centered around the fact that stars should know what they're getting into when posing for a magazine cover, and the common — and generally quite reasonable — defense that appearing in Vogue, for example, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Who wouldn't want to look their absolute best? The problem comes when the retouched final product is beyond a physically achievable result. Airbrushing off pimples is one thing; impossibly long legs are another. Ultimately, readers, feminists, and humans concerned with the media's impact on our collective psyche have to decide what qualifies as "looking your best," and what is simply unreasonable and disheartening, rather than inspiring, for regular people. (Though, of course, whether or not mass media wants to take that decision into consideration remains to be seen.)
In this case, though, we're dealing less with body-image issues and more with a stylistic choice. Versace is known as the most ostentatious of luxury brands, and its association with a particularly plastic slice of Italian and, later, Miami culture fits with the image presented here. Gaga has been involved in a similar situation before. Her Vogue cover was beautiful and surreal, and as shocking as it was to see the unretouched version, it doesn't necessarily cheapen the cover if you're willing to look at it as a piece of digital art rather than a representative photo of a real human.
Then again, that brings up an entirely separate issue: Can magazines and brands have their cake and eat it, too? Clearly, Vogue and Versace want to capitalize on the Gaga name, which makes sense. But, if they are using a celebrity (particularly one who has spoken out about body-image issues in the past), is there an onus to create something representative of reality, and thus forgo the opportunity to make that particular kind of digital art? Fashion has a long way to go before answering that question, and honestly, brands and magazines alike probably need to earn the right to digitally manipulate bodies in the name of art by ceasing to do the same in the name of so-called perfection.