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Finishing the Negative via Google Books // Public Domain
Finishing the Negative via Google Books // Public Domain

How Photo Retouching Worked Before Photoshop

Finishing the Negative via Google Books // Public Domain
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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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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iStock

Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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