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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
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When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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History
Royal Watch 1947: See Queen Elizabeth II Marry Prince Philip
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AFP/Getty Images

In less than 24 hours, millions of royal enthusiasts will climb out of their beds at an ungodly hour, brew up the strongest pot of coffee they can manage, and watch Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle exchange their “I do”s. While gluing oneself to our personal electronics to witness all the lavish pomp and circumstance that surround a royal affair may seem like a relatively new pastime, the truth is that we’ve been doing it for years. Case in point: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s 1947 wedding.

Though Elizabeth and Philip didn’t have dozens of television networks broadcasting their every step down the aisle, their nuptials did manage to attract more than 200 million earlobes, who listened in on the event via BBC Radio. Shortly thereafter, newsreel footage of the soon-to-be Queen’s big day made its way into movie theaters around the world. Now, thanks to the power of the internet, we can go back in time and tune in, too.

British Pathé has made a handful of videos from the wedding, which took place on November 20, 1947, available for streaming on YouTube. So if you want to start your royal marathon a little early, here’s your chance.

If you want to go back even further in time, The Royal Family’s YouTube channel includes footage of the 1923 wedding of Elizabeth’s parents, The Duke of York (later King George VI) and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother), which also took place at Westminster Abbey.

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