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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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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

Pete LaMotte, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

Marcin Wichary, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

Visit Mississippi, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

sporst, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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