The Retouching Debate

We take retouching for granted today. When retouching of the positive image was introduced in the 1850s, it was a controversial practice. In the 1870s, as the practice of retouching negatives became widespread, retouching “became one of the major controversies of the decade” among photographers (Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. 1).

Retouching stimulated trade by giving portrait photographers a new tool for producing flattering images and hiding technical defects.

The practice required skill, however. The eyes of the gentleman in the albumen cabinet photo above, taken sometime after David Bachrach brought his brother into his business in 1875, demonstrates how bad retouching could ruin a portrait–even at a studio that became as highly regarded as Bachrach & Bro.

In his memoirs, David Bachrach recalls that he began sending out retouching work around 1872 when his nascent studio began making enough–about $200 a week–to support a printer and a receptionist. Before 1872, Bachrach did his own retouching (“Over Fifty Years of Photography,” Part IV, in The Photographic Journal of America, March 1916). Perhaps we cannot hold him wholly responsible for this crude effort.