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Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

by Mia Fineman
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2012
Distributed by Yale University Press
288 pp., illus. 276 color & b&w. Trade, $60.00
ISBN: 9780300185010.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa, USA


The title of this book is well chosen. But another appropriate title would be Protoshop (which is in fact the title of one its chapters). Even more helpful is the subtitle—Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop—in the sense that its readers are forewarned about the thorny concerns and discussions inside. Better yet, inside is a bushel of visual delights since it turns out that this is the catalog for an ongoing exhibition that premiered in October 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, during 2013, will also be exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Not surprisingly, a major sponsor for all of this was the Adobe Corporation, whose Photoshop 1.0 was released in January 1990. Since then, as an essay in the catalog states, that now-famous software is commonly blamed for having undermined “photographic truthfulness” because of the widespread assumption “that photographs shot before 1990 captured the unvarnished truth and that the manipulations made possible by Photoshop compromised the truth.”

After reading this book, you will probably reach the conclusion that image alteration tricks attributed to Photoshop are nothing new and that equivalent techniques have been commonly practiced since 1840 and before. Photoshop’s main contribution has been to make photo manipulation less time-staking and far less dependent on manual skills. It has provided the greatest variety of people with access to the tricks long used by photographers, despite our naïve assumption that a photograph is “a mirror with a memory,” and, to follow, that the camera is an “innocent eye,” a “pencil of nature,” or an objective observation device that “never lies.” Surely, that was never the case, as this book shows persuasively. At best, as Picasso once said of all guises of art, a photograph is “a lie that [sometimes] tells the truth.”

In the process of showing the history of pre-Photoshop manipulation from about 1835 to through 1990, this volume inevitably also becomes a history of photography. Admittedly, it doesn’t cover everything. For example, it lacks the time and space to say very much about “faking it” by other means, like setting up a “factual” scene and claiming it was found that way, or purposely posing ones subjects to look unposed, or providing exotic subjects with culturally inappropriate props to make them more compliant with ethnic stereotypes. Instead, as the author clearly states, her main focus is on photographs that were manipulated in a so-called “postproduction” stage, mostly outside the camera, through photomontage (collages made from pieces cut from multiple photographs, combined and then rephotographed), printing in the darkroom from sandwiches of negatives, photo retouching, color tinting, and overpainting on the print.

Today, we are no longer greatly alarmed to be told that the photo of a sexy model on the front cover of a magazine has been digitally “nipped and tucked,” through techniques that are available now through Photoshop. One of my earliest memories of deceitful celebrity images dates back to 1989, when TV Guide magazine featured television celebrity Oprah Winfrey on its front cover. It was soon revealed that while the head belonged to Winfrey, the body had been borrowed from a photograph of actress Ann-Margaret, taken eleven years before. That issue came out a year in advance of the public release of Photoshop. It may have been digitally manipulated, but it could just as easily have been made in a traditional darkroom. 

There are older, less famous examples. This book shows “before and after” versions of the photographic cover of a little girl seated at a Thanksgiving dinner table, which appeared on the November 22, 1941 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. In the final printed version, all kinds of additions and changes were made—in the darkroom. In 1982, a cover of National Geographic magazine used a manipulated photograph (apparently done by digital means, but pre-Photoshop) of two Egyptian pyramids, moved closer together in order to fit the vertical space of the cover. Soon after, a large and enduring discussion broke out when a 1985 issue of the Whole Earth Review ran on its cover a faked photograph of flying saucers, to illustrate an article called “Digital Retouching: The End of Photography as Evidence of Anything.”

This is a fascinating book, with an engaging, thought-provoking text that discusses in detail four historic phases in our “credulity and skepticism toward the photographic image.” Through text and images, it expertly escorts us through seven historical attitudes toward photographic manipulation, then ends on a measured, encouraging note:

“…photography is a living medium—growing, mutating, and continually evolving. The proposition that ‘the camera never lies’ was always a lie or, at the very least, a widely held misconception.…The tradition of photographic manipulation that began in the 1840s is bound to continue far into the future. Let us follow it armed with a truer picture of photography’s past.”

Last Updated 6th March 2013

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