Photo editing before Photoshop

Photo editing before Photoshop

Photoshop has become a byword for image manipulation in the digital era; enabling anyone to alter the photographs they take. The word itself has become a verb; often with negative overtones. It is the ease in which images can be altered that leads many into questioning the ethics behind such manipulation.

Photography competitions issue strict rules as to how much a photo can be altered, sometimes resulting in winners being disqualified. Advertising has also come under heavy scrutiny in what many people feel is an overuse in Photoshop.

Image manipulation is not new, however. Photo editing existed before Photoshop, and is as old as photography itself. Photo editing before Photoshop included a wide range of techniques, many of them difficult and labour intensive. Airbrushing, paint, double exposure and overlaying separate images were all used. Dye transfers, different contrast papers and different coloured lights used in the enlarger were also popular techniques. A photographer could amend the negative, the print or even the developer depending on the effect desired.

Cut and paste was, at one time, a literal action taken by a photographer. Many well-known Photoshop terms have their origin in darkroom manipulation, including dodging (stopping light reaching an area of paper), burning (increasing the amount of light that reached an area of paper), masking and so on.

The results of these early editing tools are evident in the photography of the 1800’s, ripe for abuse when spiritualism was at its peak. Spirit photographer William H. Mumler’s photographs featured bereaved sitters flanked by ghostly apparitions. One of these features widowed Mary Todd; the ghost of Abraham Lincoln standing behind her.


Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband, Abraham Lincoln, early 1870s.

Double-exposure was also featured in many Victorian images to create doppelgangers and ‘headless’ men and women. Later, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths drew notoriety and fooled a large number of people with their cardboard figures of fairies.


Headless people from the Victorian era

It is no surprise that image manipulation featured heavily in politics and World War II propaganda. Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini were featured in doctored photographs, all three notably having others removed from their photographs.