Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Retouching Before the Digital Age

Before the age of Photoshop and other forms of digital image editing, photographs were much harder to manipulate.  
Die Falscher Alien from Forgetomori
As a result, people were more willing to believe them. "It must be true...I saw it in a photo!" 

The tools that photo retouchers used in the pre-digital age were basic, such as scissors, knife, gelatin, opaque watercolors, and airbrush. Retouchers basically painted right on the surface of the black and white print, which was then put back under a copy camera and rephotographed.  

"Shortcuts to Photo Retouching For Commercial Use"
by Raymond Wardell, 1946
An effective retoucher had to be good at disguising any evidence of the brush or the hand. Straight lines had to be absolutely straight and gradations absolutely smooth. The stencil brush with stiff bristles (center, above) created an array of stippled dots.

Having premixed values of gray was a timesaver and ensured predictable, consistent tones to match the grays of the photo. 

A lot of people were employed in photo retouching, but most of the work didn't involve outright deception or fantastic claims of aliens, flying saucers, or dinosaurs. 

The bulk of photo retouching work was motivated by the desire to eliminate clutter, to make old people look younger, and to make blurry photos clearer.
Previously on GurneyJourney: Composographs
Read more in PetaPixel: How Photographers ‘Photoshopped’ Their Pictures Back in 1946


Bob Easton said...

Add graphite pencils to the retouching kit. I used to watch Dad with pencils showing an inch of exposed lead, sharpened to needle point fineness, painstakingly retouch B&W prints. Almost all of his work was with the pencils. I never saw him resort to white paint. Era: 1950s - 1970s. By then, all was color and retouching was no longer an art.

RotM_81 said...

I went to a rural, poorly-funded school in Tennessee and graduated in 1999. I was on the yearbook staff for 5 years (my first illustrating work!), and we were doing layouts "the old way" – manually with big gridded sheets and photo editing and crop marks by hand. We didn't get computer layouts and edits until my senior year!

CatBlogger said...

In the 1980's I took a continuing ed class in advertising illustration and techniques. The man who taught the class suggested we find grey-scale photo re-touching paint made by Mirabu. I eventually did find a few of these warm and cool grey paint sets in a dusty corner in an old art supply store in Baton Rouge Louisiana. I still have them, and I think they are really gouache paints. As far as I know they are no longer made.

gronkchicago said...

Used to stop for * ahem * beverages after work with a bunch of the old pro's from the newspapers and there were a couple of old school retouchers among them. They tended to be a bit crabby but occasionally opened up and gave out some bits of technical wisdom. Before that, I used to work for an art supply dealer and handled all of those now defunct retouching supplies...Marabou Colors, Spot Tone...lots of 000 sable brushes and a ship-load of single edge razor blades. Got to watch the fella (his name escapes me right now) who was the airbrush illustrator and retoucher for the Chicago Tribune demonstrate his prowess with the Paasche AB airbrush...and THAT was a complicated little machine...very impressive. Ah...the good old days!

Roberto Quintana said...

Nice try, Gimi Gi, you can’t fool ME!
Retouching indeed. That’s a real alien if I’ve ever seen one! -RQ

Carole Mayne said...

I still have my Adams' retouching machine that I used on b & W and color negatives for 35 years, retouching senior high school kids and other studio portraits. A delivery from the photo lab dropped off and picked up the work from my home.

I also retouched photographic prints with retouch spray, colored pencils, and Paasche AB airbrushing. By 1971, most oil coloring of B&W's prints was over and color film took over. (still have the air tank and ab) I worked from 1971-1995. Then when computer retouching came in use, I quit, and finally could do my artwork full time.
I tried to donate the machine to the San Diego Photographic society, they had one, so declined. Recently I attempted to sell it on ebay so it wouldn't go in the landfill!
$50 plus shipping and you can have this relic! (-:

Gordon said...

I have a book by William Mortensen, a famous in his day Hollywood portrait photographer who did the movie star portraits.In it he shows how to retouch 4x5 black and white negatives using graphite pencils on the back of the original negative!
It's remarkable how much he could change the picture, even though it's not a challenge for the risk averse !

Zubida Khatoon said...

Thanks for sharing such an informative post about retouching before the digital era. it was really hard to retouch photos before. Lots of elements and time were required to retouch photo that is now more easy and time-saving.

Lisa said...

Perhaps it will be useful to someone.
Find below a new free, and useful Photoshop plug-in for photo retouching:

It comes with a free retouching video course.