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It Might Look Like Photoshop, But These Vintage Photos Weren't Digitally Altered

APRIL 5, 2015  —  By Laura Caseley  
Laura Caseley

Laura Caseley

Laura Caseley is a New York-based writer, artist, and illustrator. When she's not writing and researching for ViralNova, you can find her working on an art project or enjoying a good cup of tea.

People have been pushing the boundaries of reality by way of art for thousands of years. Today, anyone can make a surreal image with the tap of a finger, thanks to the many photo apps available. Yet in the days before digital, people had to be a bit more crafty.


Two Headed Man, ca. 1855

This double exposure shows a man in different positions, giving the illusion of having two heads.

A crazy balancing act, ca. 1930

Christmas Card, Angus McBean, 1950

Nothing says "holiday cheer" like a disembodied head. This image is also a self-portrait.

Man Juggling his Own Head, ca. 1880

Photo manipulations weren't only for humorous purposes. Just as photography developed from a way of recording events into a fine art, so too did the manipulation of photographs. Photographers could create arresting images, as well as unique, artistic portraits of famous people.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Guibert, ca. 1900

The famous painter and Moulin Rouge patron posed for this double portrait, which was created by combining negatives.

Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home, Grete Stern, 1948

It's good to know that creepy stuff like this didn't originate with the Internet.

Room with Eye, Maurice Tabard, 1930

It's like a TV that watches you back.

Photo manipulations were also used for political purposes. Realistic images could be created using collages of negatives to create visions of the future, or to create propaganda imagery. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, "spirit photographs" were created to convince people of the existence of ghosts, and were usually used to swindle people out of their money.

A "spirit" photograph, John K. Hallowell, ca. 1901

This was supposedly taken during a seance (a popular activity at the time), but it's really just a composite image, with portraits of other people arranged around the central woman.

Dirigible docked on Empire State Building, New York, 1930

This photo collage was created when dirigibles were expected to be the transportation of the future.

A Powerful Collision, 1914

This German propaganda image shows a German soldier crushing soldiers of the Triple Entente (Russia, France, and Great Britain) in WWI.

Finally, photo manipulation allowed photographers to fine-tune their images. Landscape photography used to be tricky back in the day, with the sky often appearing overexposed. Photographers quickly learned that they could get the right balance by combining negatives. Photo retouching was also developed, which ranged from making people appear more attractive to, in the case of many a dictator, erasing people entirely from photos.

Cloud Study, Light-Dark, Gustave Le Gray, 1856

This dramatic seascape was created by joining two different negatives, one of the sky and one of the sea. Since the negatives were created separately, the exposures could be different, giving this light and dark effect.

Lenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922

This photo was retouched by an artist, making it look more like a painting than a photo. The retouches included smoothing Stalin's skin and making his left arm longer.

General Grant at City Point, Levin Corbin, ca. 1902

How does one create a picture of Grant in the Civil War some 40 years later? By piecing together negatives from other photos to create a composite image. Three photos were used to create this: one for Grant's head, a second for his body and horse (the man on the horse was actually another person entirely!), and a third for the background. It looks authentic, but it's completely fabricated.

(via Techly, Mashable)

By now, you know that the images you see in magazines and online (and even sometimes in the news) can be altered so subtly that you might not even notice. But as you can see, tweaking reality to meet personal, political, or artistic needs is nothing new. It's just a lot easier to do these days.

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