What If I Were...my Grandmother in 1945?

Sep 12, 2011 14 comments
Lots of photography, but not much costuming lately.  I'm going through a sewing funk, but still need an outlet for history-related geekery, so photography is it.

So far in the "What If I Were" project, I've done 1850, 1900, 1920, 1930, 1940, and 1950.  I still have 1860s through 1890s to figure out, as well as the 19teens, and 1960s.  All along the way there's been and shall be much fun and education about hair and makeup, as well as photography and post processing.

Over the weekend I tried out the 1940s, which have always seemed like a very difficult decade photographically.  In looking at reference photos for this period, I saw a few things:

  • tilting of the frame, so the portrait is not straight-on
  • background elements such as drapery or columns or other architectural interest
  • predominantly light or mid-tone backgrounds, not black.
  • both black and white and color photos

I have several portraits of my Grandmama from the early 40s, so I wanted to emulate these, but also some Old Hollywood shots:

Eileen Barton
Who is this?
Lana Turner
Lucille Ball
Katy Jurado
Ginger Rogers
Maria Montez
Carole Landis
My Gorgeous Grandmama.
Now for my photos:

Hair -
I reference my new hair bible Vintage Hairstyling: Retro Styles with Step-by-Step Techniques for the pompadour, which I thought looked great and big and high until I saw the photos, in which it looked kindof pathetic and limp and low :-(.  I used rollers all around the front, then teased the hair up and smoothed it for the front pomp, then the same for the sides, and pulled it up and back with combs.  I haven't any hair of my own in back, so I clipped on a curly fall and put a snood over it, for the two b&w shots, and just a bandanna around it for the color.

Makeup - I referenced this post over at Beauty is a Thing of the Past blog.  The only part I had real trouble with were the lips.  I tried drawing on "extra" lip-age on top, but it looked so clownish and stupid.  I think I didn't have enough foundation to masque the natural line of the upper lip.  So try try again on this part too.

B&W photo #1
Shooting the Photos -
White background, side window lighting, and the camera was tilted.  I took many photos, referencing my grandmother's poses.  I couldn't seem to capture her soft yet determined expression, and I certainly didn't have *all that hair* and those big eyes and full lips. /sigh.

Post Processing -
Most of the photos I took were in black and white, a few in color.

B&W photo #2 - I call this one the High School Picture Day photo.  It's so cheesy.
For the black and white:
  • increased contrast
  • lightening and darkening of areas to bring them out or soften them - for instance, darkening the lips and around the eyes, and lightening highlights in the hair
  • added soft focus and erased it away from the important areas, such as the eyes, lips, and hair
  • added grain
The color, with Cross-Processing.  I like this one best, maybe because it has some of the expression I found in Grandmama's portraits from the time.
For the color photo:
  • Adjusted contrast as usual
  • darkened and lightened areas
  • added soft focus
  • added grain
  • played with cross-processing, using the Curves functionality in Photoshop.  It looks like this:

Adjusting the curves in RGB will tweak the contrast, but then playing with individual curves for red, blue, and green will give it that funky mid-20th century magazine print kind of look.

My feeble attempts here don't hold a candle to the amazing portraits of my grandmother, but I had hoped to pay some kind of homage to her.

Remember, you can try these techniques yourself, and don't need Adobe Photoshop for most of it - use Picnik.com for just about everything, even the cross-processing.

If you've made some vintage-looking photos, I'd love to see them - please leave a link in the comments so I can check them out :-)


  1. Fabulous post and photos! Your grandmother was beautiful; it runs in the family!

  2. They're (mostly) not studio shots, but I have hundreds of old family photos up on Flickr if you'd like some examples of home snapshots. Try (http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/sets/72157626978233995/) and (http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/sets/72157626986196959/) for a bunch that are from about 1900-1920s. The second link ranges a bit more. Both are the families of my paternal great-grandmothers.

    I love this series you've done, they are all so cool! Maybe I will try a later 1800s one, when you get there, with my great-great-grandmother's paisley shawl.

  3. Nice pics and a great job with yours. Your grandmother was a very pretty lady! My mom has a shot that looks almost like that.

    Hmmm, now I want to watch a Ginger Rogers movie! :)

  4. You are so incredibly good at these. I must learn your secrets. .. and then actually try them! Your photo is perfect and, in addition to yours, your grandma's photo is gorgeous!


  5. Katy Jurado looks like she just stepped off the subway in NYC. That's what they mean when they say "classic beauty."

  6. Love it! But I'm not so sure how to do that cross-processing works in Picknick

  7. The "Who is This" is a very young Ava Gardner I believe.

  8. What a fun post! I'll have to try this out. I second the vote for Ava Gardner as the unidentified beauty.

  9. I am loving this series you are doing. Great job, Lauren!

  10. Thank you so much, ladies.

    Sandi - thank you for the link! SO helpful and interesting.

    Thanks for identifying Ava Gardner, too, everyone :-)

    Isis - the Cross Processing in Picnik.com is in the "Edit" tab, under "Effects." On the left hand side, scroll down to the "Color" section, and it's on the bottom.

  11. I'm late, but thank you, Lauren!

    (And I'm Isis, who can't seem tobe able to log in today)

  12. I think if you use a light gaussian blur then add a sepia overlay. Then 'burn' (darken) and 'fade' patches so it looks a bit more aged. Then you'll have it spot on.

  13. Wonderful! Looks very authentic, you've done a fabulous job!

  14. just found your wonderful blog. The answer to your question on the who's this photo is Ava Gardner


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