The Art of Retouching – Pre-Photoshop

A recent post we published on this blog touched on the subject of Retouching Glass Plates. It’s something I promised to look at in more detail on the blog a while ago, and following a recent talk to Carshalton Photographic Society on the very subject over the summer, I’ve realised it is long overdue.

A short way into the digitisation of the Knights-Whittome collection, it became apparent to us that almost all of the plates that we had cleaned and rehoused had been retouched to a lesser or greater degree.  Having worked as a Photoshop retoucher in a previous job, I was hugely interested in how this was undertaken and by the fact that such modifications to a negative – which look very crude to the naked eye, can look so seamless in the printed images.  Over the last couple of years I have seen many of these retouched plates and have spoken to various people about the processes and methods used.  I am no expert, and so invite comment and knowledge on these techniques, but hope that today’s post may provide a little bit of enlightenment for those who like me, had no idea just how it was done and just how prolific it was during the Edwardian period.


To understand how a negative was retouched it is useful to understand the glass plate format. As a substrate, glass acts in the just same way as film, paper, tin and other historic supports; to provide the light sensitive chemical emulsion with structure and support and to allow the formation of a two dimensional image.  Because of its nature glass is necessary heavy, cumbersome and fragile which is why it was soon replaced as a medium, but for retouching purposes it was an ideal support as it provided a transparent, solid and easily modified base for the image. It also allowed for retouching on both sides of the image if necessary.

By the time Knights-Whittome’s studio was in operation, mass produced silver gelatin dry glass plates were in use and had revolutionised studio photography.  No longer did the photographer need to mix and apply their own chemicals before capturing, developing and fixing the image within a limited set time frame, as they had with earlier wet collodion glass plate technology.  Dry plates required a significantly shorter exposure time, could be used without the need for a mobile lab and could be bought in from a wholesaler as required.

Once the image had been captured by exposing the plate in the camera, it would be developed and fixed in a chemical bath in much the same way as modern film.  This process would stop the formation of the image by desensitising the chemicals and stabilising the emulsion.  The negative would then usually be varnished. A rough proof print would be made for the client, who would express a preference as to their chosen image and then final print copies would be made up to order.

However, at some point in this process, sometimes before varnishing but also frequently in addition afterwards on instruction of the client, alterations and modifications would be made to the image in order to flatter, enhance, or change the appearance of the subject.  The following images of envelopes and correspondence in the collection give examples of this kind of client instruction and it is worth noting that these are not rare examples among our collection.

Prior to working on this material I imagined that clients used to the flattery of painted portraiture might expect a little enhancement, but the extent of the practice was quite a surprise to me. Frequently we find envelopes which show that retouching was both commonplace and expected by Knights-Whittome’s clients.  Indeed, even when instruction is not given in writing the plates are usually retouched to some degree. In fact it is rare to find a plate which has not had some handwork applied to it’s surface.

Reading up on the subject I have become aware that retouching is in fact an art that evolved right alongside the birth of photography, and evidence of it is extant from the mid 1840’s, just a few short years after Fox Talbot’s invention of the Calotype process; effectively the start of photography.

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DKW_34887_Bamber_Env_RThere are various means of retouching glass plates, and I urge anyone with a real interest to read Jocelyn Sears article on Photo Retouching which is one of the most informative pieces I have found on the subject available online.

In the Knights-Whittome collection, retouching appears largely to have been applied with a graphite pencil. Pencil was commonly used to add highlights or touch out problem areas such as wrinkles or stray hairs (it should be remembered that any applied colour would be inverted when the negative was printed in positive – dark would become light and vice versa).

Large areas frequently appear to be vignetted and this would probably have been done by mildly abrading the surface of the emulsion with an exfoliant such a powdered chalk or cuttlefish which was commonly used.

In addition, the photographer also applied ink, either with a brush, or smudged quite literally onto the surface of the plate with a finger and this strikingly human visual intervention lends the plates an additional humanity and interest which only adds to their allure.

Interesting, some of the plates also appear to have a kind of etching medium applied, through which the photographer has scratched back through to sharpen areas of the images – though I can find no reference anywhere to what this technique may have been specifically for, or what was used to achieve it.


And while it seems quite crude to be literally drawing onto the emulsion with a pencil, the results are surprisingly convincing. Of course, we should note that they were never intended to withstand the scrutiny of huge magnification in Photoshop or other imaging software…

The technique was also more refined than it might seem to the untrained eye. The surface would first be keyed by a mild exfoliant to enable the retouching medium to adhere to the emulsion, then, a barrier layer – usually turpentine and resin based – would be applied with the purpose of allowing the retoucher to add graphite or ink at will, and then remove it if mistakes were made.  The resin base could be dissolved with extra turpentine, taking with it the photographers editions and this effectively gave the retoucher a number of chances to get the changes right.

Sadly we do not have any of Knights-Whittomes’ original kit, none of his cameras or studio equipment was left with the family, but we do believe he carried out all his own retouching, and would probably have used a retouching desk much like this one I recently saw at WW Winters marvellous studio in Derby.

The desk would have been hinged to rest on a table top so it could be positioned for the best light.  The hinge allowed the user to change the angle of the working surface. A central frame held a piece of glass onto which the negative would have been placed. A mirror or piece of white card attached to the base would reflect light up through the negative while an overhanging piece of wood (or a piece of fabric) prevented light from shining on the negative from above.

WW Winters was a large concern, with a retouching room and multiple technicians, who can be seen in the photo above. Knights-Whittome likely worked alone, though we believe he sent work out for colouring and detail work.  Perhaps the following image of the Odd family was an example of such work.Picture12

We do not know whether Knights-Whittome himself was personally responsible for the insertion of Mr Odd into the centre of this family portrait from the collection, but it was gratifying to learn from a colleague who recently found herself in conversation with a descendent of this family that indeed, the patriarch – Mr Odd – had in fact been unable to make the photo shoot due to ill health and had been ‘inserted’ at the centre of the group later by Knights-Whittome’s studio.  This may seem crude when we gauge it against what can be achieved today with Photoshop but it is wonderful from a historical perspective to see this kind of illusion being practised over 100 years ago, with anecdotal evidence to back it up.

Jocelyn Sears talks much about the ethics of retouching. It is something which preoccupies us much today as a society.  I do not wish to paraphrase her fabulous article, and I urge you to read it for yourself but she gives a few wonderful quotes and I cannot resist sharing an excerpt from her article:.

“It is indeed a mania that gives a great deal of trouble to the photographer,” the German retouching expert Dr. H. Vogel wrote in the March 1870 issue of The Photographic Journal of AmericaBut Dr. Vogel praised retouching, noting that, while actresses make lovely models, “The case with ladies from private life is quite different. They are often awkward in their movements or even resist the arrangements of the artist, they object to being handled, and show a skin, which, in spite of all the artifices of illumination, looks, in the negative, like a freshly plowed field. Negative retouching has to come to the rescue.”

….Others argued that, while over-retouching was a problem, some handwork was “perfectly legitimate” as long as “work on the negative or print shows no trace in the picture.” “The moment it becomes visible,” wrote one photographer in 1907, “it is cheap and fails.” For portrait photography, in particular, retouching was nearly inescapable. “It is now generally admitted that working on the negative is not only legitimate, but that it is absolutely necessary, if a presentable portrait is to be printed,” wrote the author of an 1881 photography guide. “The only question is, where to stop.”

That retouching was ‘absolutely necessary’ certainly seems to be borne out by the extent of the practice evident in the Knights-Whittome’s collection. And his formula clearly seems to have been a recipe for success, for while our photographer only ran his business for 14 years in Sutton (1904-1918) he was prolific, with many return customers and a second shop not far away.







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