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Insights & Thoughts

Magnum Photos Darkroom Magic | The Genesis Of Photoshop & Lightroom

By Kishore Sawh on September 23rd 2015


I love a good critic, and probably because they’re so rare. Haven’t you noticed? That most critics in any field are typically uninformed, and likely you’re able to peel their arguments like a banana. As a photographer, and one who can sometimes be found instructing on retouch, one of the most common irritants I hear from benighted critics is that photos can’t compare to film, because film wasn’t adjusted and ‘photoshopped.’

This is fine and understandable from those outside our field, but when vocal photographers say it, I tend to roll my eyes back into another dimension. If you’re going to be in photography, even if you don’t shoot film, a little historical education and appreciation will go far, and a way to – how shall I put this? – genuflect, to the ones who paved the way. *Note: I’m not suggesting to become the photographic equivalent of that tool at a restaurant who turns his nose up at a $30 bottle of wine because…

The fact is, Photoshop and Lightroom tools today had their genesis in the darkroom, and you may have heard this before, but it’s wonderful to see it happen, almost magical. It’s also impressive, and likely to breed a new appreciation for photos old and new, because then and now, skill and talent are required to adjust an image, as well as the right tools. It was just such a more organic and more difficult endeavor then.


Magnum Photos is a photographic co-operative and living archive of images from around the world, from the best photographers, with over a million photos in print and transparency covering people and events and anything dating back from the Spanish Civil War. As Magnum itself says, if you come across an iconic image, but you can’t think who took it or where it is to be found, there’s a good chance it came from Magnum. And currently there is one man as the master printer who brings the iconic negatives to fruition, and he has become a icon in his own right. His name is Pablo Iniro.

Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Iniro is blessed in the sense that he is able to become intimately acquainted with the type of images and negatives from the type of photographers that the rest of us cretins can only dream of. Dennis Stock’s shot of James Dean in Times Square? Thomas Hoepker’s image of Mohammed Ali fist-to-camera? They’re here, and Iniro brings them to print. The process is delicate and intricate, equal parts art and science, and the methods are what inspired the retouching tools we use all day. Seeing his heavily and meticulously marked up prints gives a look into just how much thought and work is given to each print.


It’s not easy to make out what the writings are, and even if it was clear, it very well may be in a darkroom language specific to him, but it is easy enough to pick out the sections that denote timing and what needs to be dodged and burned and how much.

The Literate Lens’ Sarah Coleman has written about Iniro’s darkroom processing and her words I’m sure will reflect the thoughts of many of you,

Over the last fifteen years, almost every photographer I’ve interviewed has waxed poetic about that “magical” experience of seeing an image develop in chemicals for the first time. You have to wonder whether today’s young photographers will rhapsodize as much about the first time they color-calibrated their monitors.

Maybe, maybe not, but it does bring about a few questions. To achieve the same effects in digital is much easier, quicker, the tools more readily available, and able to be transported. In a sense, the challenge of altering an image isn’t near the same. So do we find value in something where there is little challenge? Do we appreciate something because it can be done, or only when it can be done with difficulty?



After all, it was a necessity to have a dark room, all the chemicals, the enlargers, maybe some Ektachrome Duplicating film. You had to moderate it all, and even temperature differences in the room could affect the temp of the chemicals, and thus the time required for the chemicals to work. There was no ‘undo’ keys to hit, mitigating the ability to create minute and repeated adjustments at the press of a button, and then to print multitudes of copies with the click of another.

Now, some of you may be thinking that only dodging and burning was done in the darkroom, and there’s more that can be done now. There’s no argument there that possibilities today are endless, but then I would direct you to have a look at the work of Jerry N. Uelsmann, and you’ll likely change your mind about what you thought was possible with film; Jerry clearly didn’t think the final image needed to be tied to what was within the single negative, and created his visions with totally analog tools.

So, there you have it. It may be that the sweet ain’t as sweet without the bitter, and man, are these final images sweet.

If this has inspired you to make the most out of the tools we have available today, and you want to just become a Lightroom savant, I think it pertinent to tell you that there’s no better way to do that than with the Lightroom Workshop. It’s worth your time and will save it in the future.

Source: Magnum Photos, Gizmodo, The Literate Lens

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Branko Sreckovic

    This is one noble, fine reminiscence of almost forgotten skills. More than one Star Wars analogy comes in mind.
    This photo of Hepburn is good example of skills and resources employed to retouch the original photo. Some procedures were associated with serious health risks like bleaching and toning. Both were used for this photo, bleaching then split-toning. Dodging and burning were primary school of wet darkroom.
    @Ralph Hightower
    Developing and fixing are not producing huge quantity of chemicals for disposal. You may keep it after your work is done in an metal tank (like the old reserve fuel tanks on old Willys Jeeps) and dispose them later in the designated facility or ‘safe’ place. If you process only BW but WITHOUT bleaching and your disposal ‘products’ are mixed afterwards then the final product would be sort of ‘salt’ solution without being highly dangerous for the environment.

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  2. Tanya Goodall Smith

    I’ve been saying this for forever. Everything (at least with the initial development of the software) you can do in photoshop/lightroom came from some technique used in the darkroom. I think every photographer should learn to develop film. If anything it gives you an appreciation of how convenient we have it with digital. It was really cool to see all the annotations on these prints. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Joe Sharp

    I still love the look of black and white film from my 645 but that doesn’t keep me from using Photoshop. I develop it at home then scan it. Then use Photoshop to clean it up, crop, adjust lighting, dodge and burn. It is the best of both worlds! The prints come out better than I could ever do in my old dark room.
    Still 98% of my pictures are taken with my DSLR and I also love the crazy good image quality and color with so little effort. That doesn’t make me want to jump on the band wagon of the photographers who’s mega large prints are so vibrant they look like the world is made of plastic.

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  4. Roberto Miramontes

    Thanks for the historic background to retouch. Some people can not see that photography is a duplex art: composing + retouch.

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  5. Jean-Philippe Thierry

    Nice to see these archives! Next one, show how people were clone stamping images :)

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    • Stan Rogers

      What clone stamp? You printed big, got out your Marshall oils, painted in what you needed, and rephotographed. (Often there would be airbrushes and gouache involved instead, including the wonderful Paasche Turbo — which sounded exactly like a dentist’s drill.) Or you could literally cut and paste, skiving the edges of the collage pieces and feathering them in with the airbrush after pasting. (You could also mask and print through if you were a bit of a masochist. Bleaching was hairy business, and cutting rubylith with a swivel knife isn’t a walk in the park. Making the inverse mask with litho film was easy, though.) It’s not that we couldn’t do things, it was just difficult and time-consuming — and “undo’ was that wastebasket over there.

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  6. Dalibor Tomic

    Darkroom vs. Lightroom :)

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  7. Ben Perrin

    I always thought that back in the old days all they did was dodging and burning in the darkroom. Then I heard Sue Bryce say that one of her parents was a retoucher and used to slim people all the time and that people even got removed from old photographs. Technology sure has made all of this stuff easy!

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  8. Colin Woods

    Now that’s the guy I’d like to give me a crash course in darkroom techniques. No Ctrl-Z for him, he gets it right in real time on the paper. I love digital, but that magic is missing. Which is why, when we move into our new house and the dust has settled, my next project will be a darkroom. Its going to be fab, my wife’s old F60 with my new super sharp 24MP friendly lenses and some B&W film. And with medium format going cheap (there was a gorgeous Bronica GS-1 with 2 lenses up for $450 a while back) I may even have a look at 6×7, something I have wanted to do for so long. Pixels are great but they don’t have soul.

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    • Ralph Hightower

      I’d love to had a darkroom in my house, but we are on a septic system and I don’t know what the chemicals would do to that.

      My wife is trying to transition me over to digital with her purchase of a 5D Mk III for me, but I shoot film with either my Canon A-1 or F-1N (one is loaded with B&W, the other with color).

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