1850’s to 1950’s Photoshop before Photoshop

Courtesy of:  http://mashable.com

Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820-1884) Cloud Study, Light-Dark 1856-57


“Cloud Study, Light-Dark,” Gustave Le Gray. Two separate negatives (the sky and the sea) are joined at the horizon. This enabled Le Gray to balance two different exposure levels.

Unidentified American artist Two-Headed Man ca. 1855

c. 1855

“Two-Headed Man,” unidentified American artist

George Washington Wilson (Scottish, 1823-1893) Aberdeen Portraits No. 1 1857


“Aberdeen Portraits No. 1,” by George Washington Wilson

Almost as soon as the science of photography was perfected for use by the general public, artists and others began to manipulate the images. Beginning with daguerrotypes, photographers used double exposures to create humorous effects.

Photo manipulation was soon employed in numerous ways, as early photography had several limitations. Correct exposures in landscape photography often led to the sky being overexposed, for example. To circumnavigate this, photographers combined two images, each section with the correct exposure.

“Spirit” photography used multiple exposures to depict the medium or subject with ghostly presences in the same image.

Photo manipulation could illustrate concepts, such as the proposal to allow airships to dock at the top of the Empire State building.

The advertising industry used it to improve the appearance of products.

The artistic community also took up photo manipulation, for instance, with the creation of narrative images. Later it was adopted by the constructivist movement in Russia in the 1920s, and then again by the surrealists.

Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) Fading Away 1858


“Fading Away,” Henry Peach Robinson. Constructed by Robinson from five individual negatives. It was a favourite of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, who bought a print and placed a standing order for all further composite images produced by Robinson.

Particularly controversial was the use of photo manipulation for political purposes or propaganda. Notable dictators such as Stalin erased political opponents from the historical record, or fabricated meetings that had never taken place.

Today the photographic medium is digital, and photo manipulation is easily within the reach of the computer literate through software like Photoshop. Prior to 1985 it was not so simple. Photographs were retouched by hand using paint or ink, pieced together in the darkroom from separate photographs. Airbrushing as a term is still in use today, though the technique originated much earlier.

All these required a degree of artistic skill and, for some, access to a darkroom.


c. 1901

“Spirit” photograph, John K. Hallowell, Chicago, Illinois. Supposedly taken during a seance, actually a double exposure or composite of superimposed cutouts, showing woman, half-length, with head-and-shoulders portraits of men and women around her head.

Maurice Guibert (French, 1856-1913) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as Artist and Model ca. 1900

c. 1900

“Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as artist and model,” Maurice Guibert

Unidentified French artist Published by Allain de Torbéchet et Cie. Man Juggling His Own Head ca. 1880

c. 1880

“Man juggling his own head,” unidentified French artist

F. Holland Day (American, 1864-1933) The Vision (Orpheus Scene) 1907


“The Vision (Orpheus Scene),” F. Holland Day


c. 1902

“General Grant at City Point,” Levin Corbin. This photograph is a montage or composite of several images and does not actually show General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point. Three photos provided different parts of the portrait: the head, from Grant at his Cold Harbor, Virginia headquarters; the horse and man’s body, from Maj. Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook; and the background, from Confederate prisoners captured in the battle of Fisher’s Hill, Virginia.

William Henry Jackson (American, 1843-1942) Unidentified artist at Detroit Publishing Company Colorado Springs, Colorado ca. 1913

c. 1913

“Colorado Springs, Colorado,” William Henry Jackson / unidentified artist at Detroit Publishing Company

Unidentified German artist A Powerful Collision 1914


“A powerful collision,” unidentified German artist. Postcard with an image of a German soldier crushing members of the Triple Entente, WWI.

Unidentified American artist Dirigible Docked on Empire State Building, New York 1930


“Dirigible docked on Empire State Building, New York,” unidentified American artist

Maurice Tabard (French, 1897-1984) Room with Eye 1930


“Room with eye,” Maurice Tabard

Unidentified American artist Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders ca. 1930

c. 1930

Man on rooftop with 11 men in formation on his shoulders

Grete Stern (Argentinian, born Germany, 1904-1999) Sueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home 1948


“Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home,” Grete Stern

Unidentified Russian artist Lenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922 1949


‘Lenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922,” unidentified Russian artist. Although Stalin and Lenin met often, this image has been retouched to smooth Stalin’s skin and increase the length of his left arm.



“Christmas Card,” Angus McBean. Photographer Angus McBean’s Christmas cards frequently feature whimsically photo-manipulated images, like this self-portrait.