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Photoshop in the Archive

I really know my history.

I mean, I better know my history. I’m the Local History Librarian, after all. I credit my expertise to the caliber on my mentors, like when Teddy Roosevelt and I went on that hiking trip. We had a great time, the guy is pretty sharp. Here's a picture of us having fun. (He said I should have brought a jacket and long pants, but I laughed and said, "Oh, Teddy! That's a good one!") 

What? You're not buying it? Alright, alright. 

I've used Adobe Photoshop. (And not very well, I might add...) It's an advanced creative software program that allows drawing, editing, and creation of photographs, art, you name it. Sometimes novices, like your archivist here, have fun and sometimes put themselves into pictures with Teddy Roosevelt. It's a lot of fun for historical photographs... with the right intentions. I'm obviously being funny here, but we can create just about anything you can imagine using this software and when combined with the Internet, a photographic hoax is easy to create, spread, and in some cases, become a widely believed truth. 

 

Think you'd be able to spot the differences between history and fake? Think again.  

 

In October of 2015, NPR featured an article highlighting this photograph. Our subject here is Ulysses S. Grant in a photograph entitled "General Grant at City Point", circa 1902. 

 

Credit: Library of Congress via National Public Radio, 10-27-15

 At first glance, you might not think twice. This could be a likely scenario for our 18th President. In reality, this is a spectacular look at early methods of "Photoshop" or doctoring photographs. Photographers could layer negatives and develop multiple photographs onto one exposure, creating an entirely new image!

 

Why would anyone do this? Great question, and this is one area where history hasn't changed much. 

The guilty creator of our Ulysses photograph, Levin Corbin Handy, began creating images “to satisfy the steady demand for heroic images of the war fought by the fathers and grandfathers of his turn-of-the-century clientele, he also invented new pictures that casually blurred the line between historical fact and fiction.” (Weeks, Linton; NPR, October 27, 2015) This seems eerily reminiscent of what we see on the Internet, television, and on magazine covers today. Let's give ol' Levin some credit for creativity, eh? 

We could call this a good example of historical Photoshop. Now, we have much more advanced methods and it becomes more and more difficult to see the difference between real and fake, historical and fiction. Believe it or not, Photoshop does have a place in the archives, in historical photographs, and in editing these photographs. I use Photoshop regularly to eliminate distracting cracks and spots or simply resize a photograph, but maintain high quality resolution. Let me show you a few examples. 
 

 

Examples of Historical Photograph Editing

On the left, we have an original historical photograph of the Dismant Brothers.
To denote who is who, someone put a number on each
 person, usually on their face, that correlates to names 
on the back of the photograph. 

Here, I've used my photo editor to remove the distracting numbers
from their faces and shirts.
We gave the Dismant Brothers a "facelift", if you will. 

 

 

This is a prime example of scrapbooking and using photo corners with adhesives.

On the left, we have the original photograph of Hans Larsen, in all of his glory. His daughter, Melissa, attached all of these photographs very carefully into her scrapbook with pretty gold edges. 

The corners are a bit distracting. In the photograph on the right, we see where I've removed them and cropped (or cut down) the photograph to have more of a focus on Hans.

You're welcome, Hans! Oh, and Jack the dog too.

 

 

As historians and archivists, we tread a thin line between determining history and preserving it. Each of our choices in what we collect ultimately determines what is part of the historical record and what is not; each action is as important as every inaction. When we edit photographs, we are altering the photograph and taking away details of which could never be preserved in any other way. While most of these are minor transgressions, it is important that they stay that way: mending edges, smoothing cracks, or removing someone’s handwriting from the face of a Dismant brother. When a photograph is edited in our local history department, the original is maintained and kept separate from any editing we may determine necessary. And if you request a photograph that is slightly different than it’s original, we’ll be sure to tell you. 

 

What's truly amazing is that the Ulysses S. Grant photograph is a supremely better and much more elaborate example of photo editing than any of the editing I've done here. I strongly encourage you to check out the NPR article yourself just to see how many photographs went into making our hoax and how well it was done. And this photograph was just the tip of the iceberg-- it's one of an entire exhibit featuring early photo editing! 

 

Now I'm headed home to Glenwood Springs through my office teleporter. No Photoshop here, folks.

Until next time... 

 

Still interested in Photoshop? The library offers a free (yes, as is zero cost) service called Lynda.com through our databases where patrons can watch and learn through tutorials guided by real professionals who use these programs every day!  

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