Saturday, January 24, 2009

An Abbreviated History of Photo Manipulation

Let me preface this post by acknowledging that yes, in fact, I am sitting at home on a Saturday night writing essays on photographic history for fun. My wife and I are not exactly wild and crazy party people. This essay was written largely in response to some fairly heated discussion to which I've borne witness where participants discussed the place of Photoshop in photography. I feel that some historical perspective could help clear the air.


The first practical photographic method was devised by Louis Jacques Daguerre in 1836. This painstaking technique, called a "Daguerrotype" involved sensitizing silver-coated copper plates and exposing them to light passed through a lens for time periods generally lasting a goodly number of minutes. This technique produced a single positive-image plate that did not lend itself to the production of separate prints. Calotypes, which soon joined Daguerrotypes, utilized a sensitized paper. Both processes required that the photographer sensitize the recording medium themselves shortly (days to minutes) before use. Dry plates came to prominence in the last quarter of the 1800's, offering standardized shelf-stable media. What we call film didn't come to prominence until the end of the 1800's and only became truly ubiquitous with the introduction of the Kodak brownie in 1900.

The first well-publicized case of photo manipulation occured in 1860, when in search of a suitably heroic portrait of Lincoln, and unidentified artist ironically appended the statesman's head to the body of noted slavery advocate John C. Calhoun. While I cannot find documentation to this effect, the image was almost certainly a composited Albumen print, which was the first widely used method of creating a sensitized negative recording medium to produce positive paper prints.

Lincoln's Retouched Portrait and its Source Material Lincoln Headshot by Mathew Brady John C. Calhoun portrait and retouch artist unknown Circa 1860

To illustrate how sophisticated these albumen print composites could be, its amazing to observe Henry Peach Robinson's 1858 piece "Fading Away." This somewhat morbid image, depicting a young woman's last moments, is actually a composite based on 5 separate negative images. Having inspected a print of this work in person, I can verify that the standards of manipulation far exceed much of the digital trickery in contemporary media. I never would have pegged this image for a composite, had I not been informed of that fact in advance. Henry Peach Robinson would not have wound up on Photoshop Disasters.

Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson 1859

As the medium passed through its adolescent phases, photographers self-consciously sought to stylize the medium in an effort to establish photography as a true art form. The pictoralist movement began in earnest during the late 1800's after the introduction of the dry plate process, and took much of its inspiration from the work of the impressionist painters of the era. Pictoralists created highly subjective images utilizing soft-focus lenses and a variety of esoteric darkroom techniques. One of my favorite examples is this beautiful photogravure from William A. Fraser. In this image, a cityscape softens into dreamscape of rain, reflection, and mist.

Wet Night, Columbus Circle by William A. Fraser 1897-98

Pictoralist manipulations ranged from the aforementioned soft-focused lenses to more extreme methods such as using needles to alter the actual negatives. Its interesting to note that many pictoralists pursued these manipulations specifically to differentiate themselves and their "art" from the "snapshooters" that proliferated with the introduction of Eastman's inventions. While art historians have long given short-shrift to pictoralists for failing to embrace the unique qualities of their own medium, its possible that the modern era of digital artists will usher in a renewed respect for the achievements of this period.

Pictoralism began fading in the first part of the 1900's, when even such leading lights of the earlier pictoralist movement as Stieglitz were heard to say "It is high time that the stupidity and sham in pictorial photography be struck a solarplexus blow." As a movement, Pictoralism gave way to straight photography, which fully embraced the unique qualities of the photographic medium: sharp, detailed, and frequently instantaneous images that accurately reflect the scene before the camera. Perhaps the fullest expression of the straight photography aesthetic found fulfullement in Group f/64, a loose conglomerate of like minded artists including Westin, Adams, Cunningham, and Van Dyke. Group f/64 took their name from the smallest aperture on a large format camera, which renders a large depth of field and very high resolution.

From the f/64 manifesto:
Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the "Pictorialist," on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.

Its tempting to think of the f/64 crew as in-camera purists who eshewed darkroom trickery, but this is in fact far from the truth. Ansel Adams, for one, was a master of dodging and burning in the darkroom. His influential book, The Print, details his highly developed techniques for manipulating images in the darkroom to conform to his artistic vision. In truth, many members of f/64 were skilled manipulators in the darkroom, even if they did not attempt to disguise the fundamental nature of their medium.

Moonrise, Hernandez Mexico by Ansel Adams 1941

Incidentally, issues of photojournalistic integrity predate the founding of Adobe by a goodly margin as well. In this classic case, a furor was raised over Dorothea Lange's depression-era masterpiece when it was discovered that she had retouched out a thumb from the bottom right corner of the original image.

Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange (Retouched)

Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange (Untouched) 1936

Techniques for manipulation and retouching of images grew increasingly sophisticated as time passed. Below, you can see an amazing example of Hollywood glamor king George Hurell's "makeover" skills as performed on Joan Crawford, using a variety of labor-intensive techniques.

Joan Crawford, by Geoge Hurrell
date unknown brought to my attention by ksmahgrts on

My final example of darkroom manipulation will be, of course, Richard Avedon. In this case, Avedon used liberal retouching to overcome the limitations of location shooting with the Kennedy family.

Jackie Kennedy by Richard Avedon

Photoshop version 1.0 was first shipped in February of 1990 by Adobe Labs Inc. It was orignally designed by a college professor named Glenn Knoll who maintained a darkroom in his basement. Many of the early tools and icons were modeled after tools of the traditional darkroom, such as dodging and burning. Much has been made over Photoshop's ability to distort reality, and perhaps lower the standards for image capture as young photographers assume they can "fix it in post." However, almost all of these abilities have existed as long as there have been photographs to alter, albeit with a little more manual labor.

My hope is that a survey of these techniques and ideas throughout the history of the medium will demonstrate that whether an image is fully realized at the time of capture, or whether extensive manipulation is used to achieve the desired result, artistic vision and judgement lies at the heart of every great image. Laziness and a half-hazard "fix it in post" mentaility utilizing pre-formulated actions will not elevate a pedestrian image to greatness, but a judicious application of carefully executed techniques can elaborate a theme more fully, and occasionally correct inconvenient realities that intrude on an artist's design. Ultimately, post-production is neither requisite to, nor inhibitory of greatness.

Some non MLA-format Bibliography:
An American Century of Photography: From Dry Plate to Digital by Keith F Davis
The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family (Images by Avedon)


Amy Dale (Amy Cox) said...

this is an excellent short essay.
with anything, knowing when and when not to use something and using it in moderation, denotes one attribute of a good artist.

you make the thought of reading photography history, tactics, etc seem like the most exciting thing on earth. thank you.

and if you ever need anyone to do your MLA bibliography, i'm a whiz.

BK said...

Possibly another chapter from your first book Evan?
Interesting read.
I reckon this will will open a few eyes of people who always seem to say "thats been photoshoped" thinking image manipulation is something that has just become possible with the birth of digital photography.