'Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop' At National Gallery Of Art

‘Faking It: Manipulated Photography’ At National Gallery Of Art

From the very beginning, photography was touted as the epitome of accuracy — hence the longtime truism that “the camera does not lie.” In fact, the practice of “doctoring” photographs has existed since the medium was invented.

Nearly every type of manipulation we associate nowadays with digital photography — notably, Adobe’s Photoshop technological innovations — was also part of the medium’s predigital repertoire — multiple exposure, negative retouching, combination printing, photomontage. Soon after photography’s debut in the mid-Nineteenth Century, methods were developed to smooth away wrinkles, change body configurations, add or remove people from scenes and fabricate events that never took place.

The history of these practices is explored in “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” organized by Mia Fineman, assistant curator in the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the exhibition has already been seen. The first major exhibition to explore the subject, it is on view at the National Gallery of Art through May 5. Featured are some 200 visually fascinating photographs created from the 1840s to 1990s in the service of art, news, entertainment, politics and commerce.

Divided into seven themes, each offering different motivations for manipulating the camera image, “Faking It” offers a fresh perspective on the history of photography as it traces the medium’s complex and changing relationship to visual truth.

The exhibition opens with examples of efforts by Nineteenth Century photographers to achieve “picture perfect” images by overcoming the new medium’s inability to depict the world the way it looks to the naked eye. Pigments were applied to make monochromatic portraits more vivid and lifelike, while landscape photographers overcame blotchy, overexposed skies by joining separate land and sky images in one view.

Prime examples of the latter technique are several cloud studies by French photographer Gustave Le Gray, whose mid-1850s marine views caused a sensation by freezing the motion of breaking waves under backlit clouds drifting above. The artist kept secret that the image was printed from two separate negatives of clouds and waves.

Long exposure times, during which someone in large groups was bound to move or adopt an awkward expression, challenged early photographers. Their solution was to photograph each individual separately in the studio and then paste the figures into one composition. Scotch photographer George Washington Wilson cut out and pasted together a selection of portrait heads, then photographed the collage, in “Aberdeen Portraits, No. 1,” 1857.

The “Artifice in the Name of Art” section examines the hotly debated issue of photographers’ ability to shape the camera’s raw material into aesthetic compositions. Pioneers like England’s Henry Peach Robinson employed combination printing, assembling portions of multiple images into a single picture. In “Falling Away,” 1858, Robinson seamlessly meshed five separate negatives to create an intimate view of a bedridden, dying woman surrounded by her sorrowing family. “Just as the ubiquity of Photoshop has changed the way we look at photographs today,” observes Fineman, “the popularization of techniques of manipulation among darkroom hobbyists brought about an increased awareness on everyone’s part of the fundamental malleability of the photographic image.”

The effort to achieve fine art photographs continued with Pictorialism, a movement begun in Europe in the 1880s and soon taken up in America. Pictorialists, such as Edward Steichen in his heroic portrait of sculptor Auguste Rodin, sought to intensify the medium’s expressive potential through use of soft-focus lenses, textured printing papers and composing pictures of two or more negatives.

Photography’s enormous potential for propaganda manifested itself in myriad manipulations to serve a variety of political and ideological ends. The “Politics and Persuasion” section begins with fabricated photographs of the 1871 Paris Commune massacres, and continues with images designed to promote patriotism and support or protest totalitarian regimes. Standouts include John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi photomontages of the 1930s and images for leaflets dropped from Soviet planes during World War II that questioned Hitler’s credentials as a military leader.

A widely reproduced image of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin meeting with Bolshevik Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin, in which Stalin’s stature was enhanced and his pockmarked face smoothed, appears to portray a friendly meeting between the two revolutionary leaders. In reality, Lenin found Stalin rude and capricious and believed he should be removed from his high Communist Party position.

Barbara Morgan’s 1939 photomontage “Hearst over the People” transforms the grinning face of controversial newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst into the body of an octopus — a symbol of corporate greed and corruption. Giant tentacles hovering over workers below evoke the many-armed facets of Hearst’s notorious news empire.

Particularly chilling is a set of four composite portraits of child laborers in Southern cotton mills taken in 1913 by Lewis Hine on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee. Hine’s documentation of dismal working conditions for children in factories, textile mills, canneries and coal mines all over the United States — and the resultant stunted growth, premature aging, illness, injury and exhaustion — helped bring about social and legislative reform.

Starting in the late 1850s, commercial photographers supplemented their day-to-day businesses with trick images — tiny men in stoppered glass bottles, ghostly images reuniting clients with deceased relatives and views in which individuals appear with their own doubles, as in a circa 1900 dual portrait of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as both artist and model.

Particularly startling are a circa 1880 albumen silver print, “Man Juggling His Own Head,” and tabloid crime photographer Weegee’s manipulated image that he described as “Times Square under 10 feet of water on a sunny afternoon.”

By the 1890s, advances in halftone printing made it possible for newspapers and magazines to publish photographs regularly. Throughout the Twentieth Century newspaper photos were routinely altered, improved and sometimes fabricated to depict events that could not be recorded because conditions made cameras unusable or unwelcome. The iconic image in the “Picture Perfect” section purports to show “Dirigible Docked on Empire State Building,” 1930. In actuality no airship ever docked there, due to unceasing gusty winds, but a mast had been put in place as a mooring spot for incoming travelers, and this image served a reminder that the Empire State Building was the world’s tallest skyscraper.

Images from the 1920s to 1940s document efforts by photographers to tap the creative power of dreams and the unconscious associated with Surrealism. By manipulating camera images — through multiple exposures, sandwiched negatives, photomontage and other darkroom tricks — artists exploited the illusionist potential of their medium. Notable examples include a huge eye emerging from the wall of a bare room, and the melding of a self-portrait with a portrait of the family cat in one hallucinatory face.

The influence of flamboyant Surrealist star Salvador Dali is apparent in the work of American photographer George Platt Lynes, whose “The Sleepwalker,” a 1935 photomontage, combines the uncanny imagery of Surrealism with the controlled lighting and formal finesse of commercial studio photography. Bauhaus-trained, Argentinean photographer Grete Stern’s photomontages, created for a women’s magazine, included “Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home,” showing a huge masculine hand turning on a lamp whose base is a tiny, elegantly dressed woman.

The final section, “Protoshop,” presents photos from the second half of the Twentieth Century when artists adapted earlier manipulation strategies — like spirit photography or news photo retouching — to create images that deliberately and often humorously challenged photography’s presumed objectivity. The iconic image here is “Leap into the Void,” a faked photograph of a real event staged for the camera. In 1960, conceptual artist Yves Klein leapt from the ledge of a roof in a Paris suburb onto a canvas trampoline held by friends below. In the darkroom, photographers Harry Shunk and Janos Kender combined a shot of the empty street with the shot of the leaping Klein into an unforgettable picture.

In the late 1960s, Jerry Uelsmann revived the technique of combination printing by juxtaposing a flying tree above a tranquil piece of land surrounded by water and backed by snow-streaked mountains in the distance. This bizarre, yet aesthetically pleasing, image is considered a precursor to the seamless techniques of digital photography and Photoshop.

In the media-saturated culture of 1960s, American Martha Rosler pasted Life magazine photographs of Vietnam War soldiers onto pictures of immaculate suburban interiors clipped from House Beautiful, making a photomontage in which the soldiers match the color-coordinated décor, underscoring the artist’s critique of Vietnam as the first “living room war.”

Frank Majore’s densely layered photos of the 1980s, evoking the color-saturated world of glossy magazines and consumer marketing, are exemplified by “Follow the Queen,” in which a dozen separate exposures on a single sheet of color film overlap in a manner that mimics ads for luxury goods. Rather than using scissors and paste, Majore employed an elaborate studio process involving slide projections and multiple exposures to combine images inside the camera. All of which suggests, says curator Fineman, that “consumer desires are as malleable as photographic images themselves.”

This interesting exhibition underscores how photography has developed from a concept to a world-changing force, one that sheds light on truth, yet can also obscure and alter reality in dazzling ways. Observes Fineman, “Now in its eighteenth decade, photography is a living medium — growing, mutating and continually evolving.” With the advent of modern technological innovations, such as Adobe’s Photoshop software, image manipulation has become commonplace. “The tradition of photographic manipulation that began in the 1840s is bound to continue far into the future,” says Fineman.

Offering fresh perspectives on the history of the medium and its complex relationship to visual truth, “Faking It” evokes thought about the realities of photography — and admiration for those who manipulate it for purposes of aesthetic expression. As curator Fineman puts it, “Through today’s eyes, we can say that the old adage that ‘the camera never lies’ has always been photography’s supreme fiction.”

After closing in Washington, the exhibition travels to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, June 2–August 25.

The fully illustrated, 296-page catalog written by Mia Foreman is informative and interesting. Published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, it sells for $60, hardcover.

The National Gallery is at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. For information, 202-737-4215 or www.nga.gov.

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