How Photo Retouching Worked Before Photoshop
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.