In today’s world, it’s hard to wrap our heads around a time when retouching and enlarging photos wasn’t not only accepted, but expected! However, as photography was in its infancy, and was still bopping around finding its real place in the the world, retouching especially, was not always met with open arms. While hand painting a print was widely accepted, retouching the negative, or retouching the print in a way that would alter a person’s appearance (minimizing characteristics on the body, blemishes, etc.) was often deemed fraudulent. Add that stigma to the fact that it was very time consuming (and thus expensive) to retouch and many photographers decided not to offer it. This is an interesting point in time to stop and note that the public’s attitudes toward negative retouching being fraudulent only goes to show how fast the photographic negative took status as being a pillar of “truth.”

A sketch of the basics of a solar enlarger.

Enlargements create the need for retouching

Now, photographers (and customers) came into a dilemma as the size of photos increased because that meant more details were easily visible. Which meant more flaws were easily visible. Which meant the public began to revise its opinion on the “farce” of retouching. More and more people began asking for idealized versions of themselves in photos. This trend marked the introduction of the concept of making an “image” vs. capturing “reality.” For the first time, photography really focused on altering a subject’s appearance into an idealized versions of one’s self. The use of better lighting, posing, and retouching injected new “standards” of fashion, style and body image into society.

Now to get larger photos, enlarging came about. Prior to this era, photos were only as large as their negative. Alexander Wolcott invented and patented an enlarging type device. It would take a daguerreotype and essentially rephotograph it onto a larger plate or piece of paper. In 1857, David Woodward patented a solar enlarger. This device would transfer an image to canvas that would then get hand painted. Solar enlargers were set up horizontally over surfaces and used mirrors to relay sunlight through copy lenses and project the image onto a canvas or paper. The process remained standard until around the late 1890’s when vertical enlargers began finding their way into darkrooms.

Standard “modern” day vertical enlarger.

Evolution of the enlarger

The first vertical enlarger was designed in 1852 by Achille Quinet. In 1858, J.F. Campbell experimented by cutting a hole in his roof to enlarge an image onto a table inside his house. Campbell worked hard on perfecting the design. It evolved until it more closely resembled the enlargers that anyone who has used a darkroom in modern times, would recognize.

Luckily for photography, larger images from enlargers helped perpetuate more demand for photos. The public loved it! As their appetite grew for more and more images, larger and larger, the concept of retouching became the everyday “thing”  it is today.

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