I realize there are adults alive today who do not remember life before Photoshop. Though it seems like just yesterday to some of us, Photoshop version 1.0 was first introduced over 24 years ago! Before its existence, photographers and graphic designers who wished to remove imperfections or make improvements to their photographs were forced to either practice the skill known as “retouching” or “airbrushing” themselves or hire a professional to handle the task. Here is a brief discussion of the art of retouching based on a book titled Shortcuts to Photo Retouching for Commercial Use, published in 1946. And here is a fuller review of this handbook. The line, “DON’T DO TOO MUCH!” from the book resonates well with my own minimal experience with photo retouching.
As a photography major in art school in the early 1990s, I was taught the basics of retouching. I remember clearly Professor Dennis Buck laying out all the materials we would need: fine brushes, a magnifying loop, water, and Spot Tone, a special type of transparent dye that photographic emulsion can absorb. He also advised us not to attempt to touch up our prints first thing in the morning, suggesting instead, “Be relaxed when you do it. Put on some music. Pour a glass of wine.” Subtlety was the name of the game. The rule for fine art photographers seemed to be: the less noticeable it was, the more successful your retouching work had been.
This rule did not seem to apply at all for graphic artists and for photographs being published in newspapers. Retouching has been on my mind lately as I process my way through many boxes of UJA and UFJC photographs. There are so many examples of highly unsubtle retouching in these files: backgrounds completely obscured by heavy opaque paint; body parts added or removed; individual people taken away from crowded group shots; and (my favorite) eyes uncannily repainted over blinking eyelids. A few examples follow below…
The bolder approach suited images being mechanically reproduced in print. Holding these touched-up original prints, viewing them close up with the naked eye reveals heavy-handed alterations. But these alterations would not be noticeable when the image is greatly reduced in size and printed using the halftone process in ink on newsprint.
It seems that the graphic artists at work in the Public Relations department of the Joint Campaign frequently employed a variety of artists’ materials, including non-archival, opaque paints, as seen in the examples above. In the unretouched print above, a silhouette-shaped stain has been left on the back of this print (seen on the left, above). The stain was created when the unmarked print was stored in the file on top of this retouched print for decades. Acids from the paint on the retouched print have transferred into the back of the non-retouched print. Busy backgrounds were not always painted directly away. Sometimes the work was done on a clear plastic mask, as in the example below, laid over top the original print, so that the image could be used with or without the addition. This resembles slightly the Photoshop concept of layers.
The majority of prints in these files were never retouched, but those that were reveal a lot about retouching and printing techniques, and how the staff of the Joint Campaign used and changed the photographs in their files.