Before Photoshop there was photo retouching or “airbrushing” (named for the best tool for retouching photos). Photography was an expensive and iffy business, and expert artists did “post-production” by hand, cleaning up the mistakes which showed up in the darkroom. Blemishes had to be removed from centerfolds, backgrounds had to be cleaned up, and commissars had to be, ahhh, liquidated.
I never did photo retouching for a living, but there were a few architectural rendering jobs that ended up being just that. I was once approached to paint a couple of preliminary views of a hotel to be built on Broadway just north of Times Square. The client needed a night view of illuminated signs, and it seemed impossible to do it on their tight budget. However, they had a couple night photos of the site, and I suggested that I paint the new building into the photographs, saving the time and effort needed to create the context. Since the point was to illustrate generic signage (this WAS Times Square after all), the details could be fudged.
In the first view the existing signs and the time-lapsed streak of car lights was a perfect context for a quick approximation of the new building’s sign covered façade. The building on the far left was under construction, and no signage could be suggested (it being another client/architect with a different approach, and an aggressive lawyer); thus it became a dark and dull frame to the hotel signage.
The second photo was less satisfying. Little of the existing Times Square signage was visible, and the street activity on the left was blocked in the photo by a truck. The streaking car lights of the first photo are here less exciting and distinct. Nevertheless, I blocked in the new hotel with as much realism as I could, using the preliminary design. The dull building from the first view is here part of the background to the glowing hotel.
Another opportunity to “airbrush” arrived when Hardy Holtzman Pfieffer took on the renovation of the famous Plaza Hotel in New York City (1907 photo above). The idea was to open up usable space under the huge mansard roof while simplifying the roof line. New windows had to be added, ugly roof structures eliminated, and ornamental elements that had been removed had to be replaced. At the same time the historic effect of the hotel could not change.
The original photo shows a deteriorating roof with unsightly penthouse structures poking out. Many of the original ornaments are gone, and the overall effect is less than it could be.
The retouched photo can hardly be distinguished from the original, which was a plus in presentations to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. On closer inspection one is rewarded with a feeling of renewal and completion.
This detail of the old Plaza can be compared to…
… this same detail of the proposed new Plaza.
The next time I was faced with a retouch architectural job some years later, I had Photoshop on my computer. I will be posting actual demonstrations from those days sometime in the future.