Photography: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Retouching: Stella Digital

In the first of a series on the art of retouching, Peter Hannert talks about his work with photographers  such as Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, and David LaChappelle. And he tells us what it’s like finishing a retouch of a Lady Gaga image and seeing it viewed by over 12 million people just 60 minutes later

Peter Hannert has worked with photographers  such as Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Annie Leibovitz, and David LaChappelle. His retouching features the iconic images of Lady Gaga, Naomi Campbell and Bjork. Hannert talks about the future of re-touching, on being a Dad and educating his young girls, about the nature of fashion imagery and on the experience of seeing one of his retouched  images go from confirmed edit to being viewed  by 12.3 million people in 60 minutes.

IMSO: How did you segue from Photography to Retouching?

PETER HANNERT: My father helped me make a darkroom when I was ten – I loved photos and creating imagery from then on. In 1987 I went to Parsons for Drawing and painting but I left 3 years later to pursue photography. I worked as assistant for years culminating as Steven Klein’s first assistant. After a few grueling and inspiring years with Steven I left to go on my own.

In those early days it was difficult to get clients to pay for retouching, I couldn’t afford it, so I had to teach myself how to do it. Retouching came pretty naturally to me, it was helpful I happened to be able to draw the picture, I’d worked with talented photographers, and I was a photographer myself – It all came together and retouching became a very enjoyable part of my pictures.

In 2003 my first daughter “Stella” was born and I meet Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, these two events pushed me forward – I stopped shooting and started retouching full time. Inez and Vinoodh’s work was/is so incredibly inspiring and they’re a complete joy to work with – Hard work and having them as a client gave me the opportunity to grow a retouching business.

Photography: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Retouching: Stella Digital

Over the years I’ve been given the opportunity to work with, and learn from, so many amazingly talented people – for which, I’m incredibly grateful. I’m also fortunate enough to have some of the best retouchers around working on my team – I couldn’t do it without them!

IMSO: When you are retouching someone else’s imagery how does the creative relationship work?

PETER HANNERT: Every client is different and it takes some time to learn what works best for each. Listening carefully to what the photographer is trying to achieve is the starting point – My past experience dealing with many photographers, and being one, definitely helps me understand what the end goal should be.

Most of the work is done in the first round – We incorporate all it takes to create the photographer’s vision and over the next few rounds back and forth we fine tune everything. In the end, the viewer shouldn’t feel us at all, they should only be feeling the message from the photographer.

Photography: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Retouching: Stella Digital

IMSO: Retouching can heighten the sense of atmosphere in an image, and I’m thinking of the car ad below? How do you capture something as nebulous but all-encompassing as atmosphere?

PETER HANNERT: The car campaign was David LaChapelle – shooting for Maybach. David has a definite vision and the pieces were all there – being able to listen to the photographer and envision the final goal with them is essential. We make sure all the elements are communicating together and pushing toward the final goal or mood. If it’s done well the viewer should feel that atmosphere.

Photography: David LaChappelle. Retouching: Stella Digital

IMSO: What are the three most important lessons you have learned in using image manipulation software?


1. Don’t over do it – know when to stop.

2. Learning that Photoshop is simple – making a beautiful, tasteful final product is the challenge to focus on.

3. Knowing software has little to do with making photographers and clients trust you. We believe we’re in the ‘photographer care business’ and not so much the retouching business. Knowing the possibilities of Photoshop is just the starting point for us. Understanding what the picture can become and what the client is trying to achieve is the most important part for us.

Photography: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Retouching: Stella Digital

IMSO: What’s your favourite piece of work (your own) and why?

PETER HANNERT: It’s tough to pick just one – We did a David LaChapelle picture with over 100 layers of crazy stuff going on – that was really fun and challenging…

Recently, we did a job with Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin that unfolded in a very exciting way. They shot a stunning series of pictures of Lady Gaga – the turnaround time was same day, so things had to move quickly.

We got a confirmed edit about an hour before they were due – fortunately the pictures looked amazing already so there wasn’t much work to do – the part of the process I found so interesting came after we finished. Seconds after they were approved, Lady Gaga tweeted them to 12.3 million followers! It was really incredible to see two pictures go from confirmed edit to 12.3 million people in about 60 minutes!

I imagined old-time CEOs of big companies trying for years to communicate with people, as we watched Gaga’s Twitter feed – 1000s upon 1000s of comments came pouring in from around the world seconds after we released the images. The whole process was amazing to see – I was proud to be a small part of it.

Photography: Annie Leibovitz. Retouching: Stella Digital

IMSO: Retouching and image manipulation is everywhere, and recently it’s been highlighted in the news when it’s gone wrong. Is there a danger of a backlash and how would that change your work?

PETER HANNERT: I’m a father of two young girls so I understand what worries these concerned parents (and now governments) – BUT – people need to focus on the right issue. I believe, people need to understand fashion and fashion advertising is meant to be a fantasy, it’s not supposed to be real. Therefore people can’t take it to be some guide for judging themselves.

Just like I show my daughters how the scary parts of Harry Potter aren’t real, and wonderfully created by artists – I also talk to them about the fashion images they see. I teach them it’s all fake – it’s all a fantasy – enjoy it as it’s meant to be enjoyed just like we are entertained by the other fantastic, imaginary parts of our lives.


I wonder if Rubens got a hard time for making women too thin or too big?

Egon Schiele

Or Egon Schiele? – Are England and France going to ban his imagery because they’re too thin?

There’s a lot to say about this issue and I’ve had many long discussions about it but in the end, I feel it’s important to educate our children to be aware of what’s around them and how it impacts how they feel about themselves.

IMSO: What new skill would you love to learn to improve your work?

PETER HANNERT: I’ve just started a new company called Stella VFX – We are doing exactly what Stella Digital does but for moving image. We have some amazing software doing this kind of work and I have the rare opportunity to be working with my two partners who are some of the best in the world working with Flame, Nuke, and Luster etc.

We are just finishing work on our second movie and I’m really enjoying transferring what I know from the still side to the moving side while learning all the new parts that go with it.

IMSO: Where will this art/craft be in 10 years time? Gaze into the future, what will be the new tools and new challenges?

PETER HANNERT: There will certainly be a lot of images out there – many of them moving.

The barrier to entry for retouching on the moving side is still quiet high (a decked out flame system is $220,000) but this will drop quickly allowing more people to do this kind of work. The rest, who knows… We’ll probably see some great things happening to moving magazines on tablets etc.

Cameras will get better, more closely matching the dynamic range of our eyes – maybe surpassing our eyes, allowing people to shoot anywhere in any light?…Maybe cell phones will have cameras good enough to do any kind of commercial work or even make a movie?… We’re already seeing a few images from the iPhone come through our studio and off to the magazines!

The software will change but the “tools” used by successful people in retouching will still be good taste and a love for the image.

Photography: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Retouching: Stella Digital

Stella Digital


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