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"The skin tones are all completely fake," Farid said. "They probably curved her back in a bit, her face has been thinned out. Her hair's been lightened up to get that sort of angelic look."

The highlighting on her arm, the glow around her head -- the combined effect makes the "Circus" cover look more like a 19th century-style portrait of Spears than a photograph. Farid attributed that to the snowball effect that often occurs with airbrushing. (Spears' record label did not respond to requests for comment.)

"This is the danger with digital editing. It's a very slippery slope," he said. "You start off by removing blemishes, fixing hair, thinning limbs a little bit, then all of a sudden, you change one pixel, then a couple more and all of a sudden it's nothing like the original. It's like when you open the Oreo cookie bag and say, 'oh I'll eat four' and then reach in and say, 'what's two more?' Each step seems reasonable from the previous step. But then when you compare the first image to the last image, something really bad happens."

Kate Moss

Kate Moss, paparazzi victim, doesn't seem to be related to Kate Moss, Vogue cover girl. The supermodel took on a new skin tone for the British edition's December cover, apparently thanks to the work of retouchers. But Farid characterized the images as two extremes, neither one an accurate depiction of Moss. (British Vogue did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

"She probably looks like something between those two," he said. "In the studio you have very soft lighting, very good cameras, you're waiting for the right pose. The paparazzi are horribly unfair. They're shooting with flash, the images are grainy. It's a worst case versus a best case, unrealistic scenario."

Heidi Klum

You'd think Photoshop couldn't touch one of the world's premiere supermodels. You'd be wrong. Even with Heidi Klum's goddesslike proportions, Italian GQ still felt the need to rebuild the "Project Runway" host's physique for its December cover and photo spread.

"Her torso was probably elongated, they almost certainly trimmed everything out," Farid said. "And if you talk to the people who do this, they do the same thing to every model. It's a cookie-cutter thing." (Italian GQ did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

No one wants to reverse the course of technology. But when it comes to digital photo manipulation, less really may be more.

"I think it would be interesting for fashion magazines to return to some level of sanity, to say 'here are the things that we're going to do to the images,'" Farid said. "Be up front about it. I have no problem with removing blemishes, taking away a stray hair, playing with the lighting -- it's creating a neck that's three inches longer than any human is capable of having."

"There is a bigger picture here beyond the fashion magazines," he added. "It's our ability to trust photographs. When fashion magazines create such magnificent pieces of art, it really starts to chip away at our ability to trust what we're looking at. It's why people are so skeptical of what they see."

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