Get the picture: The weird and wonderful history of photoshopping

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In the past, when we used to see an amazing photo, our first reaction would be “Wow!”. Nowadays, more often than not, it’s “Has this been photoshopped?”’.

The simple truth is that in the 21st century there are almost no media images that haven’t been tweaked in some form or another. Whether it be outlandish visual jokes or magazine covers with thinned hips or unblemished skin, every image we see has undergone a little adjustment. This may be as simple as levelling up an horizon line or darkening a bit of cloud or it could be removing an entire person. These alterations aren’t just visual tricks with ramifications in photography either, they can have real political effect. For example, how many people today are trying to attain celebrity looks despite their role model images not even being real?

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history of photoshopping

Is Photoshop to blame?

It is often assumed that image manipulation is a phenomenon of digital photography. However, this idea is far from true. Whilst post-shoot adjustments have unquestionably become easier with digital imagery, it has always been a feature of photography. It just took a lot longer back in the day…

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Where’d He Go?

Historically, there have been many famously doctored images. Stalin and Mao both had people removed from photographs after they had behaved in a manner undesirable to their leaders.

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 A Life in Film

In order to doctor analogue images a number of techniques were employed. Some manipulations were made ‘in camera’, some to the print or negative during the printing process and some required copy shooting the final altered prints.

Double Exposures

Prior to digital cameras, each frame in the negative strip required winding on before taking the next shot. Although most modern film cameras did this automatically it could be manually halted thereby allowing the photographer to capture two or more images on one frame. Whether by design or mistake, most ghost and UFO photographs were produced in this fashion.

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Dodging and Burning

In order to darken areas, certain parts of an image could be ‘burned in’. This was done by exposing that area of the photographic paper to the light for longer. The photographer (or printer) would use either their hands or specifically cut masks to cover the areas that needed to remain lighter. Its counterpart, dodging, did exactly the same in reverse; covering an area that you wished to remain lighter, such as Eric Ambler’s face in this photograph by Elliott Erwitt.

history of photoshopping


There was a time when airbrushing meant a compressor and a beautiful Aerograph 63 airbrush and not simply selecting an icon on the menu bar! (Oh, it also needed a respirator, scalpels, masking film, masking gum, a shelf of inks and about a week of free-time). Sadly airbrushes are now often only associated with kitsch fantasy images but, as their use with photography shows, they are an astonishing tool capable of nearly undetectable changes in tone and shape.

Negative affects

In addition to the possible adjustments in the printing methods, the actual negative can also be altered. This can be done by scratching, splicing, over-laying or painting onto the negative strip itself.

And finally, in order to prove that the photograph was ‘real’, the doctored print could then be re-shot thereby producing a single ‘pure’ negative of the ‘real’ image!

Some people consider manipulation an absolute art form in its own right; others see it as nothing but fakery. Whichever side of the line you fall, it has always been with us and there is little chance of it disappearing now…

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