The world of photography lives on many oppositions between enthusiasts but also among professionals: there are those who prefer color over black and white, one brand over the other, the mirrorless or the reflex, but the spirits really light up (more among the enthusiasts who among professionals, to tell the truth ...) is when it comes to the post production discourse, for many today synonymous with "using Photoshop", implying with ill-concealed nuisance an incorrect behavior, of those who play dirty.
The digital revolution has arrived disruptively in the world of photography, wreaking havoc and disorder even in many certainties. Up to the film there were two distinct figures to arrive at the final result, almost always a photo on paper: the photographer and the developer / printer, rarely embodied by the same person. The exception is only the photographer of the origins and a little further, more similar to the figure of a photographer / chemist who tried in different ways to do it himself, then specialized figures arrived. Today almost always those who shoot also deal with post production, often having to justify themselves in the eyes of the "shooting purists". Here too there are exceptions: there are professionals who send the shots to their staff in real time but we are in particular situations (sports and fashion events, above all, where timeliness of publication is required).
In summary, today many enthusiasts and not a few professionals work alone in post production. The direct consequence is there for all to see: post production, compared to the past, is now clearly visible, especially when those who make it exceed or are not professional (with the necessary exceptions). If many photographers are proclaimed without actually being photographers, the problem becomes dramatic when it takes on the second role, of crucial importance today perhaps more than in the past.
Many perceive this real job as something recent, which poisons the sacred sense of photography. The reality is completely different but this is not the place to discuss it. The purpose of this article is different, that is, to look for examples of post production in history that prove how the two disciplines have in fact gone hand in hand. Well over 100 years before Photoshop. It will be a journey through time based on proven certainties, although these are only the tip of the iceberg given the "jealousy" with which many secrets have been kept over time.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1826
By now consolidated opinion that the first ever photograph can be considered this, that the Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce "shot" way back in 1826. Eight hours of exposure with full sunlight, pitch of Judea as a sensitive element, bad overall quality but a huge step forward from a technological point of view, because everything started from here. We report it for a simple fact: it took twenty years of that time not only to reach an enormously superior quality, but also for the first idea of photo editing in history.
Just 15 years after the big bang of photography, in 1841, William Henry Fox Talbot patented the calotype (or talbotype): it is a photographic process that allows you to print multiple images of the same subject, reproducible with the negative / positive technique. Calvert Richard Jones (his colleague), 5 years later, puts his hand to one of the negatives. The purpose of his work was to make real postcards of Malta, choosing as a subject a group of Capuchin monks. But he doesn't like that monk cut back there in the frame. He tries to darken the negative visibly by coloring it with an unspecified Indian ink. It obtains the desired image giving life, as far as is known, to the first "editing" of the story (the image on the right, the final one, is obviously inverted and intentionally developed with longer times than normal to "cancel" any visible signs of manipulation, Editor's note). Not even 20 years pass and we are able to guess the further leaps and bounds made, thanks to a little-known story.
We are now in the scenario of the "Far West", United States, say between 1850 and 1860. There was no TV, photography was certainly not mass, which is why the information passed through the few newspapers and especially with the word of mouth, strongly influenced by the first species if we were talking about political figures on whom he was called to express himself. Abraham Lincoln, who later became President of the United States, enjoyed a very bad reputation. Here is what was written about him in those days:
The North Bern Weekly Progress, North Carolina "Ugly, rough, vulgar and uneducated".
Words that weigh like boulders on an election campaign, but nothing if compared to those of those who openly opposed him:
Telegraph, Houston: "The leanest, slowest, ugliest mass of legs and arms ever seen on a single subject.
Two problems: the first is that with a voice like that that runs from mouth to mouth one can say goodbye to any desire for election, the second, perhaps worse, is that there was truth in those words, due to an illness that Lincoln was affected by. Now we have to identify a bit with how people thought at that time: the extreme thinness was a big defect, synonymous with indigence or disease. Lincoln was a giant of almost 1.95m very thin, with limbs of abnormal length, and that was enough to create extreme distrust towards him regardless of the ideas and the program. And here's the stroke of genius: Lincoln hears about a photographer, Mathew B. Brady, and believes it is a way to try to redeem his image.
Mathew B. Brady, 1860
Mathew B. Brady is a good one: first of all he does not choose the full figure in vogue at the time, to minimize the thinness further emphasized by the height. In the background practically nothing that can be taken as a reference. He also asks Lincoln to fold the fingers of his right hand, with his left leaning on two books (one certainly the Bible), as well as wearing the most voluminous clothes. But it is not over: in the printing phase it carries out a targeted post production: the upper part, where there is a face, is much brighter and more contrasted, in order to capture the gaze of the observer there, distracting him from the general proportions. The result is a portrait of a normal person, devoid of those excesses praised by some newspapers. Perhaps it is the first example of political propaganda to which post production (and the skill of the photographer) offered its service. The rest is history, even if it doesn't end there.
Thomas Hicks, photographer and painter, 1862/1863
A few years go by and we get carried away. A full-length portrait of Lincoln begins to circulate, showing a normal person in all respects (someone must also have advised him to grow a beard, to mask the angularity of the features). Decades later it will be discovered that the author, Thomas Hicks (photographer and painter) made a brutal copy and paste of the face taking as a basis a portrait of John C. Calhoun (also a politician, slave, of opposing ideas, a little as if today ... no, better not to think about it. Editor's note).
In short, everything is already cleared through customs and used over 150 years ago, even if post production in these first cases is in fact a synonym of lie (more or less full of malice), as we will also see in other examples. Also from that period, another pioneer of photomontage, Henry Peach Robinson, was active in Great Britain.
Henry Peach Robinson, "Fading Away", 1858
His works are children of the pictorial composition, combined with what is now called storytelling. Also called a pictorialist, he offers very high quality works for the time, with a story to tell. In Fading Away, criticized because he had death as his theme (still a taboo in photography), he tells in an instant the slow agony of a girl and the desperation of the family. The father who looks disconsolate outside the window, the mother who prays, the sister or the caregiver who consoles. The enormous technical limitations of the time did not allow you to take this photo in one shot, in fact there are multiple single photographs combined in post production. It was unthinkable for the time to have detail in the lights (outside the window), all the subjects in focus, the light in the right place on the faces, the balance of the lights in general. And, of course, they are all actors. But the yield, both qualitative and narrative, is incredible not only for the time but also for today.
But we're just starting to scratch the notion that before digital photos were exactly how they came out of the camera. With a not insignificant time jump, in which as you will imagine the technique has evolved both as regards photographic emulsions and for post production techniques, we arrive at the 30s of the 20th century.
George Hurrell, 1931
About 90 years ago it was already possible to perform a post production that, without knowing it, we would imagine it could only exist recently. Here is one of many examples, namely the portrait of Joan Crawford taken by George Hurrell in 1931. Joan Crawford is a Hollywood star of the golden age and is 27 years old here. In the image on the left you can see the printing of the photo as it came out of the machine, with a simple development job. The result obtained in the photograph on the right is completely different. The imperfections of the skin, wrinkles under the neck disappear, all with a "soft" effect obtained by vibration (but without creating a general wavy effect ... the Craft, with a capital M).
But there are also the "sacred monsters" of photography. Ansel Adams, believed to be the father of landscape photography in the West, active from the 1920s to the 1960s, not only did he never hide his massive use of post production, but he also wrote us books. His trilogy "The Camera", "The Negative" and "The Print" is famous, a mine of useful information for photographers of the time looking for shots with a great impact.
New Mexico, 1941
The strong contrasts, the absence of "burns" (the Moon has more detail in the later than the first) ... the impact of its shots are the direct consequence of an extremely effective post production. You need to be good today too, with Photoshop and everything, to have a similar effect. Ansel Adams himself has exhibited in several exhibitions the first (all flat and "haggard") and the later, as in this photograph depicting a landscape of New Mexico, dated 1941.
In the 50s of the twentieth century what is known as the Red Velvet Collection, which portrays a Marylin Monroe in its most famous images, was very successful. All focused on red, a symbol of love and passion (and hearts warmed several, Marylin, one of the first sex symbols in history), in reality the original shots are all, but really all, in black and white. The overlapping of colored plates, up to more than twenty, have made it possible to recreate red and all the related shades of leather and drapery in print. Not only that: many were completely naked and underwear always added by means of plates, as in the photograph on the right.
More or less contemporary this interesting document, which portrays the indications of the photographer Dennis Stock to his printer, in reference to the portrait made to James Dean in 1955. It worked like this: the printer delivered the first proofs to the photographer, who then took notes to indicate where the photo should be more or less exposed, where to work on shadows and lights, and gradually from indication to indication. The means were different, but the photographer's aims were the same (dynamic range, "exposure latitude", called things as you like, but in the end today we are not inventing anything).
Steve McCurry, a contemporary considered the master of color, could not miss in our short history. Some time ago a snapshot caused a stir, treated by his collaborators in his absence, in which a gross error of digital post production appeared.
A "digital cloning" that went wrong, interrupted perhaps by a phone call and then forgotten ... we don't know. But there is the certainty that, then as today, the use of post production is present and consolidated, often also to compensate for those technical limits of the equipment that do not even come close to the eye-brain combination. But we will talk about it in a little while.
Here is another example, where you can see not only how many disturbing elements in the background have disappeared, but also a person present on the rickshaw, the smiling one, who took away the drama from the photo. Was the shot distorted? Can't you tell us the same thing? However, does it take us to a place making us feel emotions? These are multiple choice questions, where the right and the wrong were and remain a personal matter. There will always be yes, no and everything in between.
Post production today? It is all that we have seen, more than that, within everyone's potential reach and this and only this is the big news. No longer just an elite, with peaks of skill and highly specialized, but all of them. It can be a pure lie or a more noble recovery of the limits of the instrumentation in terms of dynamic range, white balance, brightness and contrasts. In Camera Raw, or in Photoshop, or through a free app and so on. Be assured, however, that in almost all cases there is, without this constituting a novelty.
Today it is practically impossible (as then) to observe photos of a certain level without the person who took it taking a little hand. Whether it's landscape, nature, portrait (omitting fashion, there is truly an apotheosis), street photography, there is the awareness that detail, sharpness, lights and shadows can be recovered in order to obtain a better photograph. Is recovering shadows from the lawn in the photo shown lying? When were the individual stems clearly visible before the eyes? If you exposed yourself a little more, the sky could be "burned", to save the detail in that part ... These are the open questions, together with other absurdities of the past as, in certain competitions, the use of Camera Raw but not Photoshop / Lightroom, making excellent names fall into a gross error. The margin of "modifiability" in Camera Raw is immense, as it is in Photoshop / Lightroom, but for the question of "development" of the digital negative there is still much confusion today.
You can lie even without post production and we are focused on and on the ethical or unethical issue. In fact, we close with a famous, beautiful photograph, which entered the history of photography for good reason. For many years it has been taken as an example by the "shooting purists", who does not need post production at all if you are capable, if you are looking for the right moment and other ingredients that are still necessary regardless.
Robert Doisneau, 1950
For decades the symbol of Love, also in this case with a capital A, the kiss of this photo is strongly connected to Paris (in the background the Hotel de Ville, the town hall), the most romantic city par excellence. The success is immediate, there are all the ingredients of "seizing the moment", thanks to a composition that goes against all the rules, as if the photographer had been there and, not caring about everything, had taken to not miss the moment. The subjects are not in the center, but neither are they in the thirds or in the focus points. There is a hat that disturbs the foreground, a person cut in half, a lamppost sticking out of the head of another person who, on his own, is already a little distracting. Not only that: other characters "half mixed" with the subjects, is not perfectly still. In short, a concentrate of what should not be done in terms of framing. All functional to "seize the moment".
After about 40 years from that 1950 and the enormous success of the photo consolidated, two Frenchmen, Denise and Jean Louis Lavergne, came forward. Denise claims to be the woman portrayed and brings Doisneau to court, guilty in her opinion of having made a fortune by exploiting her image. And it is only there that Doisneau discovers his cards, sending the accusers home with his tail between his legs: that photo was built, to be portrayed were two theatrical actors, the composition intentionally wrong from every point of view. Also present at the trial was one of the actors, Francoise Bornet, with a photo of the time autographed by the photographer in his pocket. Does the photo lose its meaning? In our opinion, no, it loses nothing of its communicative power, but we are still at the point where there might be those who disagree, putting forward plausible reasons.
The article was written for reflection, certainly not to make judgments: photography was and is a complex discipline, full of implications, that can tell stories, excite, make participants, take us where we have never been and where perhaps not we will never go. One certain thing exists, however: it will never cease to be extremely fascinating.