I spent most of last Friday retouching around 50 scans from negatives that I took in 1981, using Photoshop. It’s a rather tedious job, but it does enable me to reclaim images from negatives that have often suffered rather from the ravages of time, poor storage and attacks by gelatine-devouring minute insects. It is the insect damage that is most difficult to correct, with multiple tracks visible sometimes over large areas, particularly noticeable in skies, and also in deep shadow areas. It isn’t always possible to completely remove it, but usually I can at least hide it, sometimes needing to make skies lighter than I would prefer and shadows darker.

There are of course photographers who don’t beleive in retouching in any way – and purists in the digital age who, particularly for news photographs, object even to any burning or dodging. I’m glad I don’t work for an agency like Reuters who have such an extremist view, not least as I think it unjustifiable, though of course there are things we shouldn’t do which some of their photographers have been caught out doing in the past, removing content from pictures.

Fifteen years ago I took many of my pictures using fill-flash, particularly to lighten faces which would otherwise be in shadow; now using cameras with greater dynamic range I do this when necessary mainly in Lightroom or Photoshop to obtain the same effect. Both to my mind equally acceptable photographic techniques. And taking this further, no photograph taken with flash or other added lighting really represents the scene as it was, but is an artifact produced by the photographer. As of course in other ways is every photograph.

The camera never records a scene as we see it. For us, seeing is a far more complex process, which processes the raw data in many ways, seeing more in shadows and highlights, emphasizing the subject against the background and more. We can only produce images that reflect what we saw and felt that made us press the shutter by working on the image after it has been taken – and even then only imperfectly. That we all take many poor photographs is not due to us consciously making bad pictures, but I think largely a matter of the gulf between what we see and how Nikon or Canon’s hardware records.

Back in the darkroom days we danced our hands and held shapes on wires and more in the enlarger’s beam to get the image we wanted. Now Photoshop makes these things easier and more controllable – and we only need to do them once and not for every print we make. Many of the vagaries of processing – dust spots, scratches, air bells and more – could only be corrected on prints, using fine pointed brushes and spotting dyes; even worse were dark spots, where delicate scraping with a scalpel was the only recourse. Sometimes we had to retouch a print and then photograph it to make a copy negative for further prints, usually on a larger format.

Back in the earlier days of photography, when large negatives or glass plates were the norm, then these could be retouched, but this was hardly possible with 35mm film, though scratches could be filled with varnish or, in a rather revolting but widespread darkroom practice, a little grease from rubbing a finger on the outside corner of your nose.

I was reminded of the days before my time today by a post on Facebook linking to a couple of articles about retouching in the early years of photography, How Photo Retouching Worked Before Photoshop and The Art of Retouching – Pre-Photoshop, and it is a subject often covered in great detail in early photographic text-books.

Edward Weston was employed as a negative retoucher by a portrait studio in Los Angeles in 1908 before becoming a studio portrait photographer. In the 1920s he came to hate retouching, but it was only in 1929 that he felt able to hang up the sign in his studio window that read “Edward Weston, Photographer, Unretouched Portraits, Prints for Collectors.” Though I very much follow his demand for realism, on the only occasion I’ve seriously considered buying an original Edward Weston print I couldn’t bring myself to do so becuase of the small dark and light dust spots on it which I knew would annoy me every time I saw it on my wall. I think it would, despite these, now be worth roughly a hundred times as much as when I failed to buy it.

Mark Silber has put on-line a rather nice film made with Kim Weston about his grandfather’s darkroom practice, including a little vintage footage of Edward. Kim talks briefly about his re-touching of portraits. But I do wish he’d taken out some of the dust on his later work – as has been done for reproduction, You can watch Richard Boutwell of retouching one of his prints using Photoshop on YouTube, though the sound is missing on the first 5 minutes of the 1 hour video video.

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