• 19th Century Photoshop

  • 19th Century Photoshop

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Life Before Adobe: Photo Manipulation in the 19th Century

I love watching clips of graphic design practices before computers (on my computer), so I’m super excited for Graphic Means, the documentary about design production from the 1960s to the 1980s, featuring heavy hitters like Tobias Frere-Jones, Adrian Shaughnessy and Steven Heller. Clips of these processes seem to be really popular, frequently showing up in my feeds with a trail of comments in which all of us kids get roasted by old school graphic designers for basically having no idea about anything.

Rewinding technology even further, I recently stumbled upon the above examples of pre (pre, pre, pre)-Photoshop photo editing and manipulation. The first is Oscar Gustav Rejlander’s ambitious and controversial photograph The Two Ways of Life (1857), an elaborate scene exploring vice and virtue. The ethereal, Renaissance-painting quality is achieved through process: the photo is actually more than 30 negatives carefully stitched together. Today, with a few hours and an iStock account, this would be a piece of cake. But take a moment to imagine this undertaking from a production level in 1857; Consider all of the photographing, careful cutting, perfect aligning, gluing, re-photographing, and developing it entailed.

The second example, which I stumbled upon over on Atlas Obscura, is really fascinating from a historical marketing perspective. During his 1860 campaign for president, just as photography was coming into play, Lincoln struggled to combat rumors of his physical repulsiveness. At a time when most people had no idea whatsoever what a candidate really looked like, Lincoln was being described in newspapers as “the leanest, lankiest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms and hatchet face ever strung upon a single frame. He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly.” (As someone who has previously described my “type” as young Abraham Lincoln, I take this as shots fired).

To dissuade such rumors, Lincoln hired Mathew Brady to photograph him and apply Brady’s well-known skills at “conceptualization” of imagery to bring out the best in Lincoln’s appearance. Atlas Obscura’s description of the photo’s manipulations really shines a light onto Lincoln’s insecurities:

The background is bare: Lincoln places his hand on two books, his eyes on the viewer; behind him is a column and a neutrally colored wall. But to quash once and for all the rumors of Lincoln’s ugliness, Brady added some special effects. He focused excessive amounts of light on Lincoln’s face in order to distract from his “gangly” frame. He had the future president curl up his fingers so that their remarkable length would go unnoticed. Brady even “artificially enlarged” Lincoln’s collar so that his neck would look more proportional.

We are so used to being bombarded by doctored photos of celebrities and politicians that I’m not sure we have an appreciation of the impact a single photo. It’s pretty staggering to imagine the time and planning that went into this stuff before you could solve all of your problems with a few clicks here, a clone stamp there, a little dodging here. It seems well worth the trouble when you remember that in the days of early photography, even presidents could count on only a few lasting images to be remembered (and voted into office) by.