Manufacturing Reality: Faking It
Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop
Metropolitan Museum of Art
October 11, 2012 – January 27, 2013
For the cover of the 1941 Thanksgiving issue of the Saturday Evening Post, photographer Richard C. Miller photographed his young daughter seated at a plentifully-appointed dinner table as she secretly eyes the fragrant roasted turkey that would be carved after grace. The scene is simply Rockwellian in its sentimentality. Previously, covers of the Saturday Evening Post exclusively featured illustrations of everyday American life: Miller’s image was the first photograph to be featured on the weekly’s cover. But unbeknownst to the Post’s readers, the scene was aset-up. In fact, every aspect of the picturesque dining table was separately photographed, cropped, and spliced together in post-production. The original photo only featured his daughter, a plate, and a spoon. Miller subsequently photographed the other items on the table individually, each under optimal light and focus. He then overlayed the separate elements to obtain the best composite image. What appears to be a spontaneous moment captured at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is actually wholly doctored.
Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art now through January 27th. The exhibition includes over 200 altered photographs ranging in both style and genre from portraiture, to propaganda, to Surrealist art. The show does not aim to reveal, as much as underscore the history behind what is today a widely acknowledged practice. Faking It shows us that photography may never have been the pure, unretouched art of our romanticizations. In fact, it seems that just as long as photography has existed as a medium of documentation, so has the desire to manipulate.
The exhibit begins with pieces dated shortly after the advent of photography, and leads viewers chronologically through thematic arrangements that coincide with the technological advancement of the medium until the 1990s. Each thematic grouping highlights in its own way the deep but subtle fissure that runs between the interpretation of reality and artistic liberty. The strength of the show lies in the details regarding the different placarded anecdotes informing us about every featured piece. The sheer volume of material on display indirectly raises the issue of whether photography as a discipline was historically everintended to be honest, as well as what “honesty” even means in the context of the art. Manipulated photography seems to accomplish some purpose–artistic, political or otherwise–that other media such as painting or drawing are sometimes unable to satisfy. As the show proceeds, we see that some intentions were meant to be playful; others, to romanticize; and even some, to deceive.
The first manner of early photographic manipulation is introduced most succinctly in an 1867 photograph of Cape Horn along the Columbia River. The photographer, Carleton E. Watkins, captured a striking, steep cliff adjacent to the tranquil water. The precipice diagonally occupies half the image, the other half of which is sky. In the exhibit, two copies of the same scene are presented alongside each other. The pair is nearly identical, with one exception: In one photograph, the sky is stark white, but in the second, a dramatic cloudscape sweeps across the sky. Due to the oversensitivity of emulsion to blues and violets, skies were often overexposed in early photographs in the mid to late 19th century. To solve this problem, many photographers would overlay a stock photo of a sky, taken with a different exposure time and often at a different location altogether. The result is a falsity, but serves to enhance the aesthetic force of a dramatic landscape. Both photos appear convincingly ‘real’; thus, the manipulation is only detectable alongside its original.
The show’s subject matter raises some interesting questions regarding the social motivations and consequences of manipulated photography. The exhibit’s section “Politics and Persuasion” demonstrates photography’s power not only to satirize, but also to subtly sway and deceive. We see much social critique through the photos in this section including Barbara Morgan’s 1939 photomontage “Hearst Over the People”, which depicts William Randolph Hearst as an octopus ominously descending upon a mass of workers. Originally featured in the leftist magazine New Masses, the image symbolized Hearst wielding his extensive social power through his corporation, and condemned his unabashed xenophobia and support of contemporary fascist dictators.
While many manipulations of the pieces in the show are clearly exaggerated, such as in Morgan’s piece, it is the seamless, concealed alterations that truly disquiet the viewer. The implications of these more subtle manipulations imply some attempt to deceive. In a 1922 photo by an unknown Russian photographer, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin are seated side by side, smiling at Lenin’s retreat in Gorki. The delicate political situation of the time conflicts with the systematic composition, allowing us to reflect on the nature of the photograph’s subsequent alterations. The image is clearly intended to convey a calculated, diplomatic narrative. Here, the two men appear at ease; Lenin, with his posture discreetly withdrawn, symbolically allows Stalin, his successor, to take the dominant foreground. This official government photo openly suggests that the imminent transfer of power will be concertedly smooth. In reality, the two men loathed each other, and Lenin even attempted to have Stalin removed from his high rank within the Communist Soviet Union government. Moreover, Stalin’s pockmarked face and small stature did not convey the power associated with the archetypal authoritarian dictator–so his image was thoroughly overhauled. The photograph masks the reality of disputes and of unsightliness with an overall painterly quality in order to illustrate a peaceful exchange amongst trusted allies.
The exhibit also marks a transition from photography as a mode of political discourse to one used for more commercial purposes. The unrivaled realism of photographs, along with their potential for alteration, drew magazine editors and commercial advertisers to photography over the course of the twentieth century. The newness of the practice of photography in journalism, too, from the early- to mid-20th century is apparent, as shown by the range of graphic experimentation featured in “Pictures in Print”. As with Miller’s “Thanksgiving Table”, many contemporary photographs, the exhibit explains, were meticulously fabricated and compiled for publication. The particular grouping of commercial and journalistic photographs in “Pictures in Print” gives the viewer insight into a time during the mid-20th century when the mass-publication of commercial and fashion photography came into its own. In Erwin Blumenfeld’s iconic 1950 cover for Vogue, a photograph of model Jean Patchett’s face is reduced to a single done-up eye, brow, lip, and signature beauty mark. The expression, though fragmented, is immediately detected. Entitled “The Doe Eye,” the image is a visual synecdoche that captures the ideal intrigue and brevity of impactful advertising. In stark contrast to the fashion magazine covers of today, which are typically formulaic and saturated with text, Blumenfeld’s cover is adorned with two, delightfully simple headlines. But the show does not signpost this discrepancy. Instead, it distinguishes Blumenfeld’s work as an exceptional intersection of practical, commercialized art, something innovative for its own sake.
The works quickly transition from images intended for advertising and popular culture to the realm of fine art. In the next section, “The Mind’s Eye”, the manipulated pieces shown attempt not to recreate a realistic or familiar scene, but rather serve as artistic representations of the metaphysical. Photographers, inspired by the art of Salvador Dali, attempted to graft photography onto the illusionary and preternatural aspects of Surrealism. Using superimposition and overlapping negatives, among other techniques, these artists were able to evoke dreamlike settings contrived from the imagination. Maurice Tabard’s 1930 photograph, “Room with Eye”, depicts an austere, windowless room with a door. A human eye, which appears to be emerging from the wall, gazes at a radiator on the floor across the room. The eye transforms what would be an otherwise normal space into something slightly disturbing. We see that photographers emulated, and attempted to intensify, the bizarre fantasy of Surrealist painting by incorporating “real” components and compose them in “unreal” ways. The manipulation of photography enabled this appropriation reality as such for the sake of its own distortion.
The tone of the show shifts slightly as computers begin to play a larger role in the alteration of finished photographs. As the show approaches the 21st century–even as early as the late 1980s and 1990s–the examples of photo manipulation without Photoshop are increasingly scarce (Photoshop 1.0 was first introduced in 1990). Nevertheless, some artists maintained the traditional alteration methods. For instance, Kathy Grove’s “The Other Series” alters famous works of art to exclude all instances of the female form with the use of airbrushing and bleaching. In her 1990 piece “After Man Ray”, for instance, Grove removed the iconic female figure from Man Ray’s “El Violin de Ingres,” leaving the model’s usual accoutrements suspended in mid-air. All that remains against a solid black background is a wrapped scarf hat, swathes of peripheral cloth, and a violin’s F-Holes–odes to the vacancy Grove created, symbolic of female marginalization in art at the hands of historians. Each physical step Grove takes to remove these figures amplifies the visceral inspiration behind the pieces overall. As the computer became more prominent, and manual techniques of photo manipulation became outmoded, the use of cruder, by-hand methods became a deliberate artistic choice, lending itself to the character of the piece.
If this show were to have a slogan, it would have to be Ansel Adams’s adage: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” The exhibit is not so controversial as to suggest that the superlative truthfulness of photography is a fallacy; nor does the show openly theorize about the significance of photo manipulation or its art-historical implications. Through anecdotal evidence, the show merely draws attention to a longstanding but overlooked practice. Today Photoshop has become so associated with the medium that when one views a published photograph it is assumed that the image has been digitally adjusted in some way. But the exhibition protests to the contrary: that the medium’s honesty has not degraded since Photoshop, and may, in fact, have always been this way. Faking It enjoins us to abandon the notion that photography’s chief purpose is to capture reality, and recommends that it is, and always has been, to supersede it.