How Photographers Retouched Photos in the Victorian Era

W&D Downey, wikimedia commons // public domain
W&D Downey, wikimedia commons // public domain / W&D Downey, wikimedia commons // public domain

Nowadays, sophisticated photo editing software makes it easy to make anyone look perfect. Photoshop away any imperfections, change the contrast, or automatically adjust the lighting—it’s as simple as clicking a few buttons. Similarly, before photography was invented, painters hired by wealthy clients could simply omit any imperfections from their portraits. “Photoshopping” could be done mentally, even before brush touched canvas.

But what about that awkward period between the invention of photography and the introduction of photo editing software? How did early photographers make their subjects look good—or was portraiture briefly a much more brutally honest art form?

According to Smithsonian, Victorian-era photographers quickly figured out how to manipulate their photos in order to make their subjects look their best. The dominant photographic print at this time was called the albumen silver print, and was produced by coating paper with a mixture of egg whites and salt, and dipping it into silver nitrate. The paper was then placed in contact with the negative and exposed to light. Before printing their photographs, photographers would use pencils to manually scratch touch-ups onto the negatives themselves. They developed a variety of scratch techniques either to shade or highlight their images—for example, they’d use a fine-pointed pencil to add highlights, or a blunt pencil and “cross-hatching” technique to brighten up parts of the face. 

The negatives themselves looked pretty strange. People’s faces appeared scratched, cracked, or pockmarked, depending on the photographer’s technique. But the scratches didn’t appear in the final print. Instead, the minuscule scratches showed up as a cheek-bone defining shadow or a healthy glow—creating with a pencil some of the same effects today’s photo editors are achieving digitally.

[h/t Smithsonian]