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Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

Man-Juggling-His-Own-Head-by-Unidentified-artist
Written by Aksel Ritenis

Man-Juggling-His-Own-Head-by-Unidentified-artist

When I told my teenager about the new exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art which is called, in part, “Faking It: Manipulated Photography,”

she looked at me as if I had two heads and asked, “Isn’t that just Photoshop?”

Well no, I thought, it’s much more. “These pictures were taken before Photoshop was invented,” I finally replied, effectively ending our conversation. I didn’t know then that the exhibit includes images of men with two heads—like the two I apparently have—and some 200 more. A number of photographs appeared familiar, but took on new meaning in the context of a study of manipulation. I felt a bit like a youngster seeing a magic trick for the first time when I looked at the diverse displays and wondered, “How did they do that?” Fortunately, unlike the secrets of the magician’s code, this installation includes wall text that details the processes used.

The exhibition first made it abundantly clear that photographic images have been manipulated since the invention of the camera. Early photographers were quickly frustrated by the technical limits of the medium, “specifically, its inability to depict the world as it appears to the naked eye.” For example, in the mid-nineteenth century, when cameras couldn’t render colored images, color was applied manually where necessary. Photographers also used hand-coloring, emphasizing blue tints, to recast daylight scenes as night shots. Some added dramatic clouds to otherwise bland skies, or combined separate images into one picture. Gustave Le Gray used these techniques to powerful effect in “Cloud Study Light-Dark” (1856-57), where waves and sky came from different negatives. His techniques remained secret during his lifetime, but he was so impressed with one set of clouds that he used them again in another work.

Cloud-Study_Light-Dark_-Gustave-Le-Gray

By the turn of the century, technical advances facilitated the transformation of black and white negatives into color. Other processes that gained favor included cropping, retouching, and even reconfiguring by cutting and pasting the images. This is not the computerized cutting and pasting of my daughter’s world, but rather the use of scissors and glue. Interest in decapitation shots and other trick photography also grew during this period, including the amusing “Man Juggling His Own Head” created by an unidentified artist in the late-nineteenth century. The Paris Surrealist Movement as well as a growing preoccupation with psychoanalysis attracted many photographers to an inner world—thoughts, dreams, fears, and fantasies—that could not be photographed using traditional means. Grete Stern’s “Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home” (1948), which appeared in the Argentine magazine Idilio, used a clever photomontage to depict one woman’s secret desires.

Dream-No1_Grete-Stern

Manipulation was not limited to portraits, landscapes, or art or trick photography. By the twentieth century, “newspaper photographs were routinely altered, improved, and sometimes fabricated in their entirety to depict events that could not be photographed because conditions made cameras unusable or unwelcome.” In “Bruno Richard Hauptmann in Electric Chair” (1936), John Wolters depicts a death chamber scene that intrigued the public—Hauptmann had been convicted of kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh’s son—but by law, could not be photographed. In a case of politics influencing photography, significant alterations to the twentieth century Russian photo “Lenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922” (1949) made it appear that the two gentlemen were on good terms, when the reality was quite different.

“The camera is an incurable liar; all that is necessary is to choose the method of the deception.” This 1940 statement by the well-known theatrical and commercial photographer, Angus McBean, sums up the entire exhibition. According to its curator, Mia Fineman, the images were divided into seven groups based on the motive for manipulation. While not strictly chronological, the installation presents a forceful and fascinating picture of the passage of time in the field of photography.

An accompanying exhibit of approximately 25 works focuses on the use of digital technology to alter images from the late-1980s to the present, when Photoshop came into being. “Faking It” is on view through January 27, 2013, while “After Photoshop” remains through May 27, 2013. All images and quotations were provided by the museum and further information is available on its website www.metmuseum.org.


Written by Christine Ritenis

New York Arts Correspondent

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Aksel Ritenis

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