Early 1900s Photographers Used Instagram-Like Tricks to Fix Pics

We’ve all experimented with the dark art that is editing selfies. Sometimes you’re just not having a great day and a few touch-ups makes that photo of your face really shine. Or, conversely, seem less greasy. But while it may seem like touching up photos is a new phenomenon, people were doing it back in the early 20th century. And, as the newly re-discovered 1909 tome, the  Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography shows vividly, they weren’t half bad at it either!

A pair of 19th century photography portraits of a woman, one of which is a touched-up version of the other.

Harold B. Lee Library/Internet Archive

DesignTAXI picked up the above and below images from the 20th century photography book. Reddit user “20toesdown” recently posted an image from the book to the subreddit “Instagram Reality.” It has since gone viral.

A successive series of three early 20th century portrait photographs featuring a woman with a thick neck.

Harold B. Lee Library/Internet Archive

PetaPixel, which was the first outlet to pick up on the Reddit post, took a look through the Complete Self-Instructing Library. The photography site found that it’s essentially an instruction manual for making people look better in photographs. With featured topics including everything from how to blend in highlights and shadows to how to use etching knives to remove “objectionable” parts of photos.

A successive series of three early 20th century portrait photographs featuring man with crossed eyes.

Harold B. Lee Library/Internet Archive

“By the combination of etching and retouching—i.e. by the use of the knife and pencil—you etch and model, and with these two instruments you can make any alteration you desire on the negative,” the book states. The book notes that “highlights on the bones in the neck may be cut down and subdued” and that “crooked noses [can be] straightened, shadows accentuated, hair added, backgrounds altered, objectionable portion removed, figures taken from groups, etc.”

A series of six early 20th century photographs featuring a woman with closed eyes.

Harold B. Lee Library/Internet Archive

The images demonstrate the effectiveness of the editing techniques. Wrinkles on the woman’s neck in the image at the top, for example, have been removed for the final photograph. In the portrait below that, editors have made a woman’s “thick neck” thinner. Apparently early 20th century expert image editors could even “open” a person’s closed eyes. Just like this book has opened ours to how particular people have always been about pictures of themselves.

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