Old Skool Photoshop

June 16, 2014

By Sissy Albertine and Mark Martin

Long before the days of glamour shots and digital images edited with Photoshop, many traditional film photographers used a method of retouching the original negative with a finely pointed lead pencil to achieve a smooth, desirable skin texture. Drawing on the emulsion side of the negative with a pencil, a retoucher could either add or remove density to correct imperfections, such as wrinkles, blemishes or sagging skin.

Contact print, showing before and after retouching.

Contact print, showing before and after retouching.

This example is a contact print made from a medium-format negative taken by Norman Studio in Natchez, Miss., and found in the Thomas and Joan Gandy Photograph Collection. The photograph shows before and after retouching of a 5×7 inch negative of Miss Pearl Guyton, a long-time history teacher at Natchez High School. Though the photograph is not dated, her clothing and her appearance in the before image and what that might tell us about her age (she was born about 1886 according to the 1940 census) suggest it is from the 1930s.

So, you ask, how was this pre-cursor to airbrushing done?

Retouched negative showing pencil marks.

Retouched negative showing pencil marks.

First, a solution of powdered pumice was applied to the emulsion side of the negative to create a “tooth” for the lead. Then, the retoucher blended the uneven tones with a pencil to subtract lines and smooth out the surface of her skin. Miss Guyton looks like a different person with the lines on her face softened and the bags under her eyes erased. The final product is a much more attractive portrait.