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Finishing the Negative via Google Books // Public Domain

How Photo Retouching Worked Before Photoshop

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Finishing the Negative via Google Books // Public Domain

This is the first installment in a short series of articles on photo manipulation in the days before computers.

In 1841, the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot patented the calotype—the first practical photographic process to create a negative that could generate multiple copies. Just five years later, in 1846, the first known act of photographic retouching was performed by a Welsh colleague of Talbot’s named Calvert Richard Jones, or perhaps by one of Jones’s associates. Jones had taken a photograph of five Capuchin friars on a rooftop in Malta, but while four of the friars were clustered together talking in a group, the fifth hovered a few feet behind them, framed awkwardly against the sky. Jones, or an associate, didn’t like the way this fifth friar was interrupting the scene, and so blotted out the figure on the paper negative using some India ink. In the positive print, the place where the fifth friar had stood became white sky.

Retouching has therefore been around almost as long as photography itself, but instead of taking place on a computer, as it does now, it originally took place on the negative. Photographers and retouching specialists would scrape their film with knives, draw or paint on top of it, and even paste multiple negatives together to create a single print. And just like today, photographers and cultural critics of the 19th and 20th centuries debated the ethics of retouching. Public enthusiasm for the practice has risen and fallen in waves, but retouching has been an integral part of photography ever since that fateful day in 1846.

Glass plate negative. Image credit: Roy Boshi via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

From its invention in 1851 through the 1870s, the wet collodion process was the most popular method of developing photographs. To create a negative, the photographer would coat a glass plate with a substance called collodion, then bathe it in silver nitrate to make it light-sensitive before finally placing it in the camera. These “wet plate” negatives had to be both exposed and developed within 10 minutes, so they required photographers to use portable darkrooms.

By 1880, the so-called dry plate process—in which a glass plate coated with gelatin and a silver bromide emulsion could be left to dry and then used later—had become the leading photographic method, thanks to its convenience. Both of these processes used glass negatives that were well-suited to manual retouching, also known as “handwork.” Large-scale glass negatives were the rule during the 19th century; plastic negatives became popular after 1913 and were manually retouched with the same techniques used on glass.

The retouching process began the same way regardless of the type of negative being altered. After a negative had been exposed and had captured an image, the photographer would use chemicals in a darkroom to develop and then “fix” it, so that it was no longer sensitive to light. Some photographers then varnished their negatives, adding a protective coating before they began retouching. Others would retouch directly on the unvarnished negative, then add varnish over the retouching to seal it.

A retouching desk. Image credit: Finishing the Negative via Google Books. // Public Domain

The work took place on a retouching desk. This hinged easel had a central wooden frame propped up by side supports that allowed the user to change the angle of the working surface. The central frame held a piece of glass onto which the negative was placed. Attached to the base, an adjustable mirror or piece of white cardstock reflected light up through the negative. An overhanging piece of wood—sometimes accompanied by built-in side curtains or a piece of fabric thrown over the whole contraption—prevented light from shining on the negative from above. The retoucher was told to set up the retouching desk in front of a north-facing window, as light from the north “is the least variable,” according to one 1898 retouching guide. Most retouching took place on the film side of a negative—the one covered with the photographic emulsion.

A woman demonstrating the correct position at a retouching desk. Image credit: The book of photography; practical, theoretical and applied, via Archive.org // Public Domain

Retouching manuals advocated making a test print from the negative before retouching, to show where the photograph needed a perfecting hand. If certain parts of the print were too light, that problem would need to be handled first—usually before any varnishing. Since a negative reverses the light and dark areas of an image, highlights on the photograph appear black on the negative, and vice versa. If a large dark area needed “reducing,” the photographer would use a scrap of cotton or leather to carefully exfoliate the film with cuttlefish powder or powdered chalk. To lighten small sections of the negative, the retoucher would use a sharp blade to shave away the dark film, little by little, thus subduing the highlight in the final print.

An etching knife and its proper position. Image credit: Complete self-instructing library of practical photography via Archive.org // Public Domain

For detail work, the retoucher would use a blade similar to a surgeon’s scalpel. Called etching, this process was delicate work; only experienced retouchers would perform extensive etching. Portrait photographers, though, found it invaluable for perfecting images of their clients. “The most frequent use of the knife by the professional photographer is to reduce the waist line on pictures of some of their female sitters whose embonpoint may be too apparent,” Camera Magazine noted in 1904. 

"Reducing size of stout subjects." Image credit: Complete self-instructing library of practical photography via Archive.org // Public Domain

The New Photo-Miniature commented in 1913, “It is safe to say that the etching-knife is one of the most useful tools in the retouching department, and its uses are so many that it is almost impossible to recount them all. There is the cross-eyed man or woman who wishes that fault corrected; there is one who wishes a crooked nose or a too prominent cheek-bone improved, stray hairs must be removed, also wrinkles in dresses, hair darkened, moved figures sharpened, undesirable parts softened or removed in the figure, and what not.”

Neck retouching. Image credit: Complete self-instructing library of practical photography via Archive.org // Public Domain

Once the retoucher had finished lightening certain areas, he or she would darken others using a hard graphite pencil, or a brush dipped in ink or watercolor. But first, the retoucher had to prepare the surface of the negative so that the color would adhere. To roughen the surface enough to absorb color, the retoucher could very gently abrade the negative with finely powdered pumice stone or cuttlefish bone. Most also applied a retouching medium, a liquid that usually had a base of turpentine mixed with balsam or gum and that offered the great advantage of being easily removable in case of mistakes. If a retoucher applied too much graphite or ink, he or she could dissolve the retouching medium using pure turpentine, wipe off the negative, apply more medium, and then try again.

Retouchers used different “touches” or “strokes” of the pencil—from crosshatching to spirals to dots—to solve different problems, but guides recommended a curved line for most situations. A light touch was essential, a 1919 retouching guide noted: “If the work is too coarse, it will show in the print. This is the reason that some portraits, after they are retouched, look as if the sitter had the smallpox.”

Freckle removal. Image credit: Complete self-instructing library of practical photography via Archive.org // Public Domain

The stages of freckle removal. Image credit: Complete self-instructing library of practical photography via Archive.org // Public Domain

Portraits were the primary subject of retouching, and while photographers and critics argued about the ethics and appropriateness of extensive retouching, most accepted that it was necessary for, at least, eliminating skin blotches and freckles. Arguing against retouching in an 1891 issue of Photographic Mosaics, Virgil Williams wrote: “I do not like heads as photographers retouch them. […] I have never known an artistic retoucher; I mean to say I have never known a retoucher who did not eliminate character from the head when he retouched it.” But while he argued for retaining the “irregularities of the features” that give a person “character,” Williams conceded that “Defects in the complexion, like yellow blots, make the negative extremely spotted, and, of course, they should be eliminated.”

After filling in such skin imperfections, as well as any spots on the negative left by dust, the retoucher would then work to “model” the face and body of the subject, toning down negative features and subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) reshaping certain body parts. 

An unretouched negative and print followed by a retouched negative and print. Image credit: Complete self-instructing library of practical photography via Archive.org // Public Domain

 
Noses, ears, jaws, necks, and shoulders were reshaped according to prevailing beauty standards, while wrinkles were reduced or eliminated and protruding bones or tendons smoothed out.

Retouching was widespread in Europe by the 1850s, with Germans in particular pioneering retouching methods. A photographer from Philadelphia named James Fitzallan Ryder introduced retouching to the United States in 1868 when he hired a retoucher from Germany to come work in his studio. By the 1870s, there was a craze for negative retouching in both Europe and the United States, with customers insisting their portraits be retouched. 

“It is indeed a mania that gives a great deal of trouble to the photographer,” the German retouching expert Dr. H. Vogel wrote in the March 1870 issue of The Photographic Journal of America. But Dr. Vogel praised retouching, noting that, while actresses make lovely models, “The case with ladies from private life is quite different. They are often awkward in their movements or even resist the arrangements of the artist, they object to being handled, and show a skin, which, in spite of all the artifices of illumination, looks, in the negative, like a freshly plowed field. Negative retouching has to come to the rescue.” 

Finishing the Negative via Google Books // Public Domain

Henry Hunt Snelling, a prominent editor and writer on photographic topics who published one of the earliest practical manuals on daguerreotype photography, frequently railed against retouching in the pages of The Philadelphia Photographer. To Snelling, a need for retouching simply revealed the photographer’s lack of skill. “The man who cannot produce a negative in the camera, that will print a positive of equal merit to any ‘artistically retouched’ negative is unworthy to be denominated a photographer,” he sneered in March 1872.

Others argued that, while over-retouching was a problem, some handwork was “perfectly legitimate” as long as “work on the negative or print shows no trace in the picture.” “The moment it becomes visible,” wrote one photographer in 1907, “it is cheap and fails.” For portrait photography, in particular, retouching was nearly inescapable. “It is now generally admitted that working on the negative is not only legitimate, but that it is absolutely necessary, if a presentable portrait is to be printed,” wrote the author of an 1881 photography guide. “The only question is, where to stop.” 

Camera Magazine via Google Books // Public Domain

Plenty of magazines and books were happy to tell photographers where to stop. Some provided examples, while others simply offered acerbic warnings, particularly about the removal of wrinkles. An 1881 guide commented, “An old man without wrinkles is an unnatural and ghastly object—the ‘marble brow’ of the poet should be left to literature.” One writer in an 1890 issue of Photographic Mosaics made a similar statement: “Over-retouching is one of the flagrant faults of modern photographers. It was very wrong in you to touch out all the character in the face of your otherwise fine ‘old sea-captain.’”

Some photographers advocated the use of soft-focus lenses in lieu of retouching, like a 1915 Popular Photography writer who noted that, with a soft-focus lens, “character lines can be retained without retouching and features have the shape their Maker intended instead of being altered to suit the taste of the retoucher.” 

Of course, as H.L. Demarest wrote in the same magazine a few months later, “Soft-focus effects are not to every one’s taste, however; and it is discouraging to be told, ‘I do not like fuzzy-wuzzy pictures’ when showing a masterpiece.”

For clients who wanted to look a certain way, some retouching was unavoidable. Many photographers likely agreed with Frederick C. Davis when he noted in Photo-Era Magazine in 1920 that “Retouching is a necessary evil.” Of course, the modern media seems to have adopted a similar attitude.

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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