Scanning Around With Gene: The Old Way of Photo Retouching

I’ve never been much of an artist, though I did, early in my career, have several opportunities to do some basic black and white photo retouching — mostly taking out a background, fixing a flaw or trying to tone down glare from reflected light. These tasks were done back then not on the computer, but with a set of special photo-retouch paints and a variety of fine brushes. Sometimes in a pinch we’d use a black Sharpie or a soft pencil. In those days you did whatever was necessary to achieve your final result, regardless of how bad it looked on the original. Fortunately, reproduction quality wasn’t what it is today and you could cover up a host of flaws when making a halftone in the process camera.

After reading the article about retouching photos, I decided to devote this column to the art of retouching as it was done pre-Photoshop. I recently came across a 1946 book on the art of photo retouching and it reminded me of those youthful days, though I had none of the skills evidenced by the author, Raymond Wardell. Here was a true illustrator and artist who could dramatically change a photograph using the simplest of tools and a steady hand. But what caught my eye was how similar the basics of photo retouching were in 1946 to what they are today. The tools have changed and we now work much more in color, but the reasons for tackling a retouching job are surprisingly consistent over the decades. Click on any scan for a larger version. Below the cover image is the author at his work table.

Wardell starts by showing us the tools of the photo retouching trade which were, back then, primarily focused on black and white reproduction. He did, by the way, all of the hand lettering for the book which has no traditional typesetting.

Technique was, and still is, key to successful retouching. Clearly a steady hand was essential back then and you could argue, still essential today, even if it is to precisely control the mouse or stylus. Only back then you couldn’t simply enlarge the image on screen to see better, you had to use a magnifying glass.

Before giving a lot of specific retouching examples Wardell covers the basics, such as how to crop a photo and what a halftone is.

And of course it takes Wardell almost two pages to explain how to scale a photograph proportionately, which back then was a mathematical exercise not for the weak of heart. Here is just one step in the process – measuring the image area of the photograph.

It’s also important, as it is today, to choose your work methods carefully and make sure the effort you put in is worth the reward.

Masking or “silhouetting” was just as popular back then as it is today, only there were no magic selection tools to make the job easier – backgrounds were simply painted out.

But what impresses me the most in Wardell’s book are the examples, which include the sort of detail that could bring a modern Photoshop jockey to their knees. Here, for example, he talks about highlighting individual grains of rice, and shows how, with a little patience, you can add detail to a set of instrument dials.

Some basics never change. Darkness still dramatizes.

And there is nothing like taking a complex image and making it simpler as in this case of a factory building.

And finally, a scene that Wardell “glamorizes” by turning it from a daylight picture to nighttime, complete with moon and dramatic clouds. And he advises without hesitation that it would be good to change some cars in the parking lot to trucks.

Photo retouching has always been a lot about simplifying images and imagining what isn’t there. We have much more sophisticated tools today, but a good retoucher is still an artist at the core, not just a technician. Wardell, it appears, was both.

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