Back in the days of analog (film) photography, there was a lag, serendipitous or frustrating depending on how you looked at it, between taking a photo and seeing the result. Once the prints were in hand, shuffling through them brought the realization of joyful accidents and unforeseen failures, like seeing a friend's portrait that seemed quite right when taken and in the print she sprouts a lamppost from her head.
Now, with the advent of digital photography, we can immediately see what we have taken, and have the chance to redo the shot until we have the best possible composition of what is in front of us. If we have quibbles with the image afterwards we can make spectacular adjustments with photo manipulation programs from simple Instagram filters to the big guns of Photoshop.
Photographs made their way into the Brooklyn Daily Eagle gradually. From the Eagle's beginnings in 1841 until the early years of the 20th century, illustration did the heavy lifting for advertising and feature articles. By 1904 we see photos pepper the back pages, with advertisers being the early adopters, and by 1910 photos accompany the front page features.
The Eagle's photographers did their work from the very early 1900s to 1955, shooting the subject of a story as they found it, using their knowledge to get the best shot possible in unpredictable circumstances and trusting they would have a usable image when the film came back from the Eagle lab.
Once a negative is in hand there are many techniques to improve it before ever making a print from it. But these techniques take great skill and time. A newspaper on deadline has little time to spare, so most of the retouching we see happens on the print. Luckily for us, the traces of this work are fairly visible, telling the story of before and after even if we only see the final version.
I estimate around 30% of the Eagle photographs were retouched and it is interesting to see why and how it was done. It is clear the photographers took care to create an interesting composition from a candid situation, such as a news story or sports event in media res, or a more static picture in the case of posed shots, such as charity events, glamorous celebrity portraits, and cute animal pictures. But out in the world, in contrast to controlled studio conditions, there was much that was outside of their control: backgrounds, lighting, and accidents of color that create real visual confusion. To the rescue came the photo retoucher, perhaps the photographer but more likely someone in the art department, to play with nature and make the photos clear and pleasing for the paper.
The majority of the retouching I have seen was done with opaque water-based paint (gouache), and occasionally with transparent dyes or watercolors, which give a nudge of lightness or darkness to separate areas of the picture without covering them completely. These paints were laid down directly on the print with soft brushes for lines and flat areas or an airbrush to achieve a light even mist. Any irreparable mistakes - just pull another print and start again.
Here are some photo sets that demonstrate the most common retouching techniques used at the Eagle.
In this photograph of the Domestic Relations Court at Myrtle and Vanderbilt Avenues in Brooklyn, we can see the original photograph is very high contrast with blinding whites and deep blacks. My guess is that the retoucher started in on this overall dark print (look for the bluish square on the left), realized it would be too much work to lighten all the dark areas and requested a lighter print be made. The second print brings out details in the dark areas (look for the satin suit in the lady on the far left) but condemns the ladies in the center to being bleached out completely. The retoucher then had to reconstruct them with grey details and outlines. We can see where paint was used because it has a bluish cast in contrast to the soft brown of the photo emulsion.
The photo as it appeared in the Eagle, accompanying an article by Magistrate Dooley about unhappy marriages, achieves a nice mix of light and dark values. Our digital version of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was captured from microfilm so the quality is not always high for the photographs - they would have been clearer in the print edition.
We have an example of emphatic line work and a bit of background reinvention in this portrait at a college dance from 1952. This carefully posed photo, taken with flash, has an overall greyness that would never reproduce well.
Another lighter print was done and, in addition to some careful description of her hair, dress and crown, the retoucher gave us an illogical but very artful block of dark to offset her right shoulder. The rest of the background is white to set off her dark hair and eliminate the shadow from the flash, making Gloria look snappy rather than flat in the published paper.
Transparency techniques such as watercolor, dyes and airbrush were used when the basic building blocks of a shot were good but the value balances (light-dark relationships) were not reading clearly.
Here you can see a photo that was carefully posed and shot with flash (look for the heavy shadows, most obvious on the far right under Rachel Robinson's leg) but the busy background needed to be quietened down to show the women to best advantage. A light mist of white was laid down with an airbrush to even out the background to a middle grey, after carefully using a stencil, made with a piece of light cardstock, plastic, or adhesive film, to mask the figures and prevent any overspray.
And this was the tool for the job:
Finally an orange grease pencil indicates where the photo would be cropped to fit that frame on the page. Alas, no published version was found.
When a subject was too complex to mask, and therefore unsuitable for airbrush, it was up to the retoucher to apply a wash of watercolor or dye over the background to set it back. Before and after photos of this window washer show some skillful brush and line work.
Another rare example of identical prints, retouched in very different ways, one for a full figure and one only for a headshot:
Many of the above examples never found their way into the printed paper. The photo at the head of this article, featuring the Eagle editor Edwin B. Wilson, is a prime example of the changing decisions made on photos. In that photo the woman on the right was originally blocked out, then scrubbed clean again. The retoucher then decided to focus on the Eagle editor to the exclusion of the rest of the photo. Finally it appears the photo was never used.
These photos reveal how integral retouching work was to making them as descriptive and elegant as possible in anticipation of their inclusion in the paper. Clearly much work was done and cut before an issue ever made it to the stands. The Eagle photo morgue gives us a privileged peek into the process of assembling a busy urban newspaper.