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A History of Photo Retouching

Photo retouching is a common occurrence today. We crop pictures to display a subject better, smooth out the lines on a models face and even alter skin and hair colour. There is nothing that we can’t do to an image with a good computer and Photoshop. However, we have not always had digital imaging software or computers.

In the past and still today, film development has been done using a series of water and chemical baths. This involves using a room that is very dark to keep the light sensitive film from being damaged. The temperature of the baths and the room must also be controlled for the photos to develop properly. It is a very specialised and time consuming job, but it can produce pictures with more texture. However, for any retouching most people today will scan their photos and do it through Photoshop. This was not possible in the past.

That does not mean that photo retouching was not popular. In fact, some very famous photographs throughout history were retouched to edit people out or make other small changes. This work was done completely by hand, using a variety of techniques. These include: piecing the negatives of similar photos together in a dark room, editing with ink or paint, or using an actual air brush. Most of these have been adapted for use in the digital world, but they were also quite effective in the past.

One of the earliest examples of these photo retouching techniques was found in the United States in 1860. A picture of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the US, which is used in their 5 dollar bill is a composite. It is actually Abraham Lincoln’s head on top of another politician’s body. It was made by cutting out the head of Lincoln from another picture and stitching it atop the new body. Very fine inking was then used to smooth out the alteration. This photo was created to make a more dramatic picture of Lincoln since none had been taken yet.
These methods have been used throughout history, especially in the political arena. Joseph Stalin was a big fan of using the airbrush. While the pre-digital use of an air brush was to help hide the fact that a photo had been retouched, extreme use could completely remove a person. Stalin often used this tactic after one of his purges to erase those who were in pictures with him. Mao Tse-tung, Adolf Hitler and probably many others also used similar methods when associates fell out of favour with them.

Photo retouching has come a long way over the years. Both now and in the past, a skilled hand with the right tools can perform amazing feats with a photograph. While many argue that today retouching has gone too far in magazine covers and advertisements, it actually has a long history in changing reality.


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