First World War Photoshop

Nurse Craven with original retouching

Title: Nurse Craven with original retouching
Description: Heritage Doncaster - DY-BAG-5-3-2724 by-nc

What’s your opinion on photo retouching? We often think of it as a modern invention. Most people are familiar with heavily edited or ‘Photoshopped’ images of models and celebrities. But did you know that photo editing has been around since the mid-1800s – almost as long as photography itself?

Before computers, photographers would edit their film by scraping it with knives or drawing directly onto it in pencil. It wasn’t long before retouching became big business, with clients requesting it for their portraits. In 1904, Camera Magazine noted that “the most frequent use of the photographer’s knife is to reduce the waistline of their female sitters.”

And just like today, photographers and cultural critics of the 19th and 20th centuries debated the ethics of retouching. Public enthusiasm for the practice has risen and fallen in waves, but retouching has been an integral part of photography ever since that fateful day in 1846.

Retouched glass plate

Title: Retouched glass plate
Description: Heritage Doncaster - DYBAG-5-3-226 by-nc

At first glance this outdoor portrait looks quite ordinary. In fact, photographer Luke Bagshaw has retouched the entire right hand side. You can clearly see where he has drawn on top of the original glass plate, creating the illusion of bricks and grass in the background. At the bottom you can see what remains of the shoulder of a second soldier, who has been ‘photoshopped’ out of the picture using this technique.

It wasn’t uncommon for photographers to remove people and objects from their shots in this way. Sometimes they would blot out the background using ink, which would create a plain white background when the negative was developed and printed.

It is now generally admitted that working on the negative is not only legitimate, but that it is absolutely necessary, if a presentable portrait is to be printed,” wrote the author of an 1881 photography guide. “The only question is, where to stop.