Analog Photograph Editing: Masking Before Photoshop

Group photograph exemplifying masking technique

Group photograph edited using masking technique to remove upper portion of the background from the image.

May 1, 2018

Over the course of my internship at Perkins, I have had the opportunity to work with not one, but multiple collections. In working with a variety of materials, I have often come across what I like to playfully call “Photoshop before Photoshop.” Before the days of digital photo editing tools, like Adobe Photoshop or Gimp, photographs had to be edited using analog means, whether that be pen, paint, or cutting into the photograph. In most cases, photographs were edited using these analog methods for later use in publications, such as yearbooks, annual reports, or pamphlets.  

My interest in these physically altered photographs was heightened following a Boston University photography class’ visit to the Perkins Archives. During their visit, I was able to sit in on their conversations about photographic mediums and how an image could be enhanced or adapted to reflect how and by whom a photograph would be used. After learning more about techniques and strategies for modifying photographs, I became inspired to learn more about the altered images I had discovered during my time at Perkins.

For those interested, the Perkins Archives Blog has a previous blog post highlighting photographs edited using pen markings. However, the most common type of photograph enhancement I have come across these past few months has been masking, a process by which the editor paints out portions of a photograph with a white paint. A way of adding definition, masking was often used to emphasize certain figures or define shapes within the image. Unlike pen enhancements, which were used to fill in blank spaces or add detail where it was lacking, masking was used to block out particular aspects of an image as a way of defining the desired focal point of the image. For this reason, the photograph editor would usually paint over the background of the image, thereby drawing attention to people or objects in the foreground.

Upon discovering an altered photograph, I enjoyed finding the final product and comparing the before and after. Seeing the altered photograph alone, one may wonder how effective this technique was for creating a clear distinction between the desired and undesired portions of an image. Since the masking paint itself often looks messy or even hastily applied over the photograph, I was at first skeptical about how the final product would turn out. After finding the images below, however, I was pleasantly surprised at how effective this method proved to be. In the example below, I have compared the original photograph, the edited photograph, and the final product, which is in a pamphlet titled “Progress of Perkins” from 1932. In the first image, one can see the original photograph showing four kindergarten girls leaning over a concrete ledge with an ivy-covered building in the background. In the second image, the photograph has been edited using masking to cover the building in the background. As a result, the four kindergarten girls are defined and separated from their surroundings. The third image shows the final result in the “Progress of Perkins.” The four girls, originally seen in front of a campus building, now appear to be perched within the pages of the “Progress of Perkins.” The masking performed on this photograph breaks apart the typical rectangular border of the original image and instead allows for a more dynamic layout that integrates the text and images on the page of the publication.

Original Photograph showing four kindergarten girls in front of building

Edited photograph using masking to cover the building in the background.

Final image of the four kindergarten girls in "Progress of Perkins"

The gallery below provides some additional examples of photographs implementing this masking technique.

Image gallery