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Victorian Photo Retouching: The Original Instagram Filter

How did people live before Instagram filters? The beauty standards of current day seem damningly harsh. Is Photoshop one of the greatest technological tools of the last century? It’s easy to think we’re at the pinnacle of photography and image manipulation, but surprisingly, things weren’t that different from photo editing today.

Photo of a man's head retouched to appear rounder
Photo of a man’s head retouched to appear rounder

During the Edwardian and Victorian era photo retouching was all the craze. Photographers would retouch the actual negatives to eliminate wrinkles, harsh lighting, or even sculpt or shave down features.

Jocelyn Sears has a fantastic piece on this titled, “8 Odd Beauty Standards in Turn-of-the-Century Photographs”, over at Mental Floss. In the article she describes the harsh beauty standards at the time, mostly derived from the pseudo medical practices of phrenology and physiognomy. These studies implied that someone’s character or personal traits could be determined by their physical features.

Photo alteration in which a young woman's teeth which have been hidden
Photo alteration in which a young woman’s teeth which have been hidden

Unsurprisingly, these practices take us down a familiar path we’re all too used to even to this day when it comes to beauty standards; sexism and racism. For example,

“An instructive article on retouching in the magazine The New Photo-Miniature noted that forehead wrinkles are ‘lines and marks of age or thought or worry’ and that ‘In women under fifty they should generally be removed almost completely. In men they are generally merely softened, as often expressing character and individuality.’ Women’s wrinkles, apparently, do not express character or individuality as men’s do.” – 8 Odd Beauty Standards in Turn-of-the-Century Photographs, Jocelyn Sears

It does seem, however, that beauty standards have pretty much done a complete 180. While today contouring and angular faces are pushed in magazines and advertising, prominent cheekbones and sharp features were viewed as masculine and displeasing. A woman was retouched to have soft, full features.

The Complete Self-Instructing Library warned, ‘A high cheek-bone suggests more of the animal nature in the individual; a lower cheek-bone, which gives by far more beauty to the face, denotes mildness of character and a more congenial nature.’ Sharp, prominent cheekbones imply too much forcefulness of character to be considered attractive on women…” – 8 Odd Beauty Standards in Turn-of-the-Century Photographs, Jocelyn Sears

It seems like this is a battle never to be won but at least in this day and age we’re the one’s with the self agency and power to do the retouching. What features do you play up in your photo editing? Would you be into getting an old photograph of yourself touched up in turn-of-the-century style?

 

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