How were images tweaked before the ascent of Photoshop?

Before and after tweaking ... but which is which? (photo by dreamglowpumpkincat210 - CC-BY)

Today, it’s normal for fashion photos to be tweaked. In the March 2008 issue of Vogue magazine, one retoucher (Pascal Dangin) applied his skills to 37 fashion pictures and 107 advertisements! He made changes ranging from simple (removing a mole, a stray hair, some “crows feet” or a wrinkle) to advanced (changing breast size, leg length, or neck shape).

Occasionally one hears a call for the disclosure of modified images, but in the world of fashion and advertising almost all images have been tweaked in some way. Nor is image modification a new phenomenon: images were tweaked long Photoshop was used as a verb, and long before the Gimp open source image editor was created.

Already by the late 1980s it was possible to tweak photos on a computer. Although the tools were rudimentary, it was no problem to change the color of a bikini or remove a pimple. Before that, the photo itself—the physical print—would need to be modified. An airbrush was the favorite tool of the retoucher, because it enabled changes to be built-up gradually and rendered with smooth and imperceptible edges. With the aid of an airbrush, a skilled operator could remove blemishes and alter the model’s complection. It was also possible to delete unwanted objects by airbrushing over them. In this way, background clutter could be eliminated, or a landscape could be “improved” by rendering power lines invisible.

Before color potography became widely available, it was common to use watercolors to add tints to black-and-white photographs, to approximate the true colors. When done well, these hand-colored photos were almost indistinguishable from a color image.

Tweaking could also be done while a photo was being developed in the darkroom. A darkroom operator would move small opaque shapes over the photographic paper for part of the exposure time to modify the depth of development, in a technique known as “dodging” (if exposure was reduced in parts of the photo) or “burning” (if exposure was increased in parts of the photo). As with airbrushing, it was possible to remove a blemish or change the skin tone, but the technique was difficult to master.

Photos are routinely tweaked as they are being taken. Soft-focus can be used to downplay wrinkles, and a pimple can be covered up with makeup. Different lighting changes how a model looks: soft lighting from above and off to one side lends a feminine look, while harsh lighting or lighting from below can make even the most feminine model look like an ogre. Using a wide-angle lens and moving in close will make the model’s nose look much bigger, whereas a long lens will produce a more distinguished portrait. Clothing with a horizontal pattern makes a person look fatter, and clothing with a vertical pattern makes a person look taller.

Before the adoption of photography, everything was interpreted by the artist. A person commissioning a painting could specify exactly how they wanted the artist to represent the subject, and many historical photos depict the person as they would like to appear rather than how they actually looked. You could always rely on Picasso to correct the size and placement of someone’s nose, or on Lucian Freud to trim a few kilos from his Benefits Supervisor Resting. As for Priapus, I rest my case.

Manipulating images is as old as images themselves. However, we don’t always want to make everything as bland and symmetrical as possible; sometimes we want to go the other way. For that, there is caricature.

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