Before Photoshop

I recently presented a poster at the Society of Georgia Archivists on photograph editing through history.  The project started when I was working on the Florida Citrus Photographs Collection in the McKay Archive at Florida Southern College.  Several of the photographs in the collection looked like someone had painted them with whiteout.  Naturally, the first question that comes to mind is: Why would anyone intentionally do that to an otherwise beautiful photograph?

In each photograph, the paint was used to edit out features or to provide more contrast; the technique used is called hand painting.  Traditionally, hand painting was used between 1850-1950 and its primary function was to add color to a black and white photograph.  The intent was to make the photograph look more lifelike.  Even though the paint in these photographs was used for editing, the technique is still hand painting according to Nick Johnson, professor at the New England School of Photography.  Further research demonstrated that this technique was not confined to the Florida Citrus Industry as this technique was also present in the McKay Archives’ Frank Lloyd Wright Collection.  We posited that this type of editing was executed on photographs intended for publication and as we sifted through the collection, we found multiple instances where these hand painted/edited photographs were featured in publications.


The next question that follows is: If hand painting was used to edit photographs, were there other methods for editing photographs?  This is where we open the can of worms.  YES, there were many methods for editing photographs and these methods can date back to the beginning of photography.  It is safe to say that so long as there have been photographs, there have been ways to edit photographs.

Antoin Severugun (c. 1840s – 1933) an Iranian photographer, edited his photos with hand painting.  The photo above is housed at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Gallery Archive  and was created between 1880-1910.  The Smithsonian notes site that  “The sky is reddened with brush works visible. Snow drawn on the mountain top.”  In addition to hand painting, Severugun would occasionally edit photographs by blotting the negatives with his fingers to allow more or less light to pass through during development; Severugun’s fingerprints can be seen throughout his photographs.  – David Hogge, Smithsonian Archivist at the Freer and Sackler Gallery.

         Another method used to edit photographs was double exposure.  Upon first glance, no one would question the authenticity of this photograph of Ulysses S. Grant (created in June, 1864 and housed in the Library of Congress); but a closer look reveals a much different story.  The photograph is actually a composite of three different photographs.

This iconic photograph of Abraham Lincoln (c.1860) was also likely created through the trick of double exposure.  It is very possible that the photographer exposed one portion of the photograph (John Calhoun’s body) while hiding the other portion (John Calhoun’s head).  In the next exposure, they could have exposed Lincoln’s head – thus creating the photograph of Lincoln we see in every elementary school across the United States.

Finally, if your mind is not blown yet, check out the National Media Museum’s collection of William Hope’s Spirit Photographs.  William Hope (1863-1933) dedicated much of his life to photo editing.  While claiming to be a medium, Hope would double expose images to give the appearance of ghostly visitors.  In 1922, Harry Price published an article exposing Hope as a fraud. In spite of Price’s article, Hope  was able to continue his work  because of his loyal supporters, including  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Today, Photoshop and photo editing are common place.  If we see a photograph of a shark sailing out of the water in a gallant attempt to have a one of our coast guards for lunch, the first question that pops into our head is: “Was that Photoshoped?” However, we are not so quick to question the authenticity of older photographs even though photo editing has existed along side of photography from the beginning.  People always have and always will find ways to edit and redact. Considering the impact images have on public opinion and perceived reality, it is important to assign images the appropriate level of importance and rely on multiple layers of evidence.  An old image is not necessarily a trustworthy image and redaction is dangerous if it goes unchecked.


  • Four and Six. (2012). Four and six.  Retrieved from
  • Freer and Sackler: The Smithsonian museum of Asian art. (2012). Severugun resource page.  Retrieved from
  • Henishch, H. K., & Henisch, B. A. (1996). The painted photograph, 1839-1914: Origins, techniques, aspirations.  University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Ivankovich, M., & Ivankovich, S. (2005) Early twentieth century hand-painted photography: Identification & values. Paducah, KY: Collector Books.
  • Lavedrine, B. (2003). A guide to the preventive conservation of photograph collections.  Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute.
  • Library of Congress. (2012). Grant at City Point. Retrieved from 
  • MacDougall, C. D. (1940). Hoaxes. Chicago, IL: The Macmillian Co.
  • National Media Museum. (2012). The spirit photographs of William Hope.  Retrieved from
  • NPR. (2012). Supernatural (and super creepy) spirit photos of William Hope. Retrieved from
  • Rinhart, F., Rinhart, M., & Wagner R. W. (1999). The American tintype. Columbus, OH: Ohio Stat University Press.
  • Schimmelman, F. G. (2007). The tintype in America, 1856-1880.  Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society.
  • Tobias, J. C. (1934). The art of coloring photographic prints: In transparent water-color, tempera, opaque and transparent pastel, wax crayons, opaque and transparent oils, chemical coloring and coloring lantern slides.  Boston, MA:  American photographic Publishing.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnndddd the poster:

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