Friday, November 28, 2008

Traces of analog image editing in the archives of Life magazine's files

Analog Image Editing from the Files of Life MagazineI came across this photo of artist Aaron Bohrod surrounded by a patch of gray while browsing the Life magazine archives in Google Image Search. Bohrod was commissioned by Life to cover World War II, the last time Life routinely used artists as well as photographers to cover a war.

The image provoked an intense pang of nostalgia for the media's earlier, analog way of working with photos. The tweaks that today are done routinely in Photoshop were done in the darkroom, or by retouching the photo itself, or both. What seems to have happened here is that the magazine needed a headshot of Bohrod (something that comes up a lot more often than using a complete photograph) and a photo retoucher was assigned to paint the gray box around Bohrod's head and shoulders. He seems to have used a brush first and then an airbrush to blend the background into a flat, neutral gray, leaving that ghostly halo around the outside of the box. Then a halftone was made of just the head and shoulders, and the photo was returned to the files, the only way to preserve it for future use. Today that would all be accomplished by simply selecting the head and shoulders on a screen and pasting it onto a neutral background.

The idea that all those millions of Life photographs could someday be stored in a few boxes known as hard drives would have seemed like pure science fiction -- not to mention the idea that any of them could be called up by a few keystrokes by anyone, anywhere.

When I started in journalism, newspapers everywhere still had physical file cabinets filled with artifacts like this. The more an image had been used, the more marks of use it would have, ranging from grease pencil crop marks in the margins to traces of the retoucher's brush, which always looked so artificial on the glossy print, but which usually looked perfectly natural in the final halftone. In other words, each image showed traces of its movement through the collaborative enterprise that was involved in its transformation into print and mass reproduction.

Today, the only traces are ghosts in a machine. We've gained a lot, but we've lost something, too.


George H. said...

Gosh you are old. Excellent descriptions. I somehow salvaged a few of the old zinc mugs of people and familiar shots used in the Linotype days downtown. They were all discarded en route to "cold type," and I had a handfull in my desk drawer for many years. One was of Charlie Brown.

Madison Guy said...

Thanks, george. I hope you kept the Charlie Brown zinc mug. What a priceless artifact. Who knows? It might be the only one in existence. How many people would have bothered to preserve them?