Are Tattoos and Glamour Photography Compatible?

Many years ago, I watched a video of the great Vincent Versace retouch a photograph he had taken of a grouping of green leaves. Before he did anything, he carefully studied the image, then he mapped out a diagram of where he wanted the viewer's eyes to go, and in what order. Area 1 would be the primary focus of the image. Area two would be where he wanted the viewer's eyes to go next, and then on to Area 3.

Mr. Versace masterfully adjusted the light and dark areas, as well as the sharpness of certain areas of the photograph to skilfully direct the viewer's eyes along his preconceived roadmap. The result was stunning! In portrait photography, we are faced with the same challenge. Where do we want the viewer's eyes to go first, then second and third? Sometimes, Area 1 is not even the model. When I was allowed to shoot professional models at the Bvlgari opening here in Singapore, the emphasis was most definitely on the jewelry:

Our eyes go right to the beautiful pearl and gold necklace - by design.

Our eyes go right to the beautiful pearl and gold necklace - by design.

In retouching the above image, I chose not to emphasize this model's world-class blue eyes in order to place our attention on the necklace. Would that have been possible with a tattoo on her neck or shoulder?

Most often though, it is the model we wish to emphasize. The areas we want the viewer's eyes to focus on may be her eyes, skin, mouth, or various parts of her figure. Tattoos destroy this roadmap. When the viewer looks at a photograph of a tattooed model, the eyes go to right to the tattoo - every time! Because of this, tattoos and glamour are generally incompatible.

Is this the opinion of a wretched, grumpy, silly, stupid old man who is not "with it?" Yes, certainly, I am all those things. My opinion is not the reason for this incompatibility, however. Instead, it is the physiology of the human eye. When a person looks at a scene, the eyes go to bright areas. They also go to areas of high contrast, and they also gravitate to areas of sharpness. Tattoos most definitely are contrasty, especially on people with light skin. The edges of the typical tattoo are also often quite sharp. So, when I look at at image of a model with a tattoo, the tattoo dominates the image. This is how the photograph becomes about the tattoo, instead of the model.

It follows then that models that choose to get tattoos become tattoo models, and there is nothing wrong with that. As a photographer, I want to control where the viewer's eyes go in my images. The reason I avoid shooting models with tattoos is that, with them, I lose that creative control.