Ed #7 Retouching

Capturing Souls, Transfiguring Bodies

Several decades later, the use of faked photos became more widespread with the rise of spirit photography, which purported to show the ghost of a dead loved one. Spirit photographers would typically ask for a photo of the deceased, photograph it on a portion of a negative and then expose the negative again at a séance held to contact the dead. Voila! A photo of the dead person hovering over the living appeared. In public debates, spirit photos were attacked as frauds by the magician Harry Houdini, who made some spirit photos of his own to unmask the techniques involved. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, defended the veracity of the photos just as vehemently.

After halftone printing was introduced in the 1880s, faked pictures were created to accompany faked stories. As early as the 1900s politicians were combining photos to show opponents seemingly talking to communist leaders and other undesirables. On April Fool’s Day and sometimes other occasions as well, newspapers published images of giant sea monsters, space aliens and other fantastic creatures. Postcard printers followed suit with such now iconic images as the Jackalope. 

The temptation to not just improve reality, but change it, remains strong today. In the late 1980s, TV Guide wanted to run a photo of a newly slender Oprah Winfrey but didn’t have one. The editor solved the problem by putting Oprah’s head on the actress Ann-Margret’s body. In the 2004 presidential election, two images were combined to falsely show a young John Kerry seated next to Jane Fonda at a Vietnam-era anti-war rally.

While photographic fakery has a long history, it has become far more commonplace since John and Thomas Knoll developed Photoshop®, which was first sold in 1990. Until then retouching was performed manually, and the process was difficult and time-consuming. It took years of training to master the tools that were used—an airbrush, layers of friskets, or masks, that isolated each separate portion of the image, and special dyes—as well as outstanding hand-eye coordination. Completing major modifications could take days or weeks, and if mistakes were made the retoucher would sometimes have to start over from the beginning. So even though conventional retouching could deliver exceptional results, its use was limited.

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