In the photograph, a man extends his index finger to flip the power switch at the base of a table lamp. The body of the lamp is a real-life woman kneeling, her arms raised to hold the pretty floral lampshade. This scene, created to accompany a magazine column in which a psychologist analyzed readers’ dreams, is fantastically convincing. Yet no computer was used in its making—German Argentine photographer Grete Stern produced it in 1950, a full 40 years before Photoshop was released. Part of a new show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that explores the history of doctored photography in the pre-digital era, the image is a reminder that photo manipulation is nothing new. “In conversations, on panels, everywhere I spoke, I would inevitably be asked, ‘So how has digital technology changed photography?’” says Mia Fineman, assistant curator of photography at the Met, who organized the show. “My answer was that it hasn’t.”
Altered pictures have been around since photography’s invention. Until now, however, they have mostly been seen as footnotes and oddities in the medium’s history. “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” on view from October 11 through January 27, argues that everything digital
photography does has been done before—in portraits, photo-illustrations, pictures for newspapers and magazines, and novelty photos. “The technology has changed several times in the course of photography’s history, and that’s part of the history of the medium, but there’s no break between analog and digital,” Fineman says. “It’s a continuum.”
That continuum exists in part because the motivations for tweaking images haven’t changed much. Chief among those reasons is that all cameras have shortcomings—there are things they cannot record. Early photographers in particular relied on darkroom techniques and postproduction procedures to make their pictures look like what they saw, or would have liked to see, with their eyes. When Édouard Baldus photographed a monastery courtyard for Cloister of Saint-Trophime, Arles, in 1851, he encountered a complicated angle and dim light, problems familiar to any photographer. His solution was to patch together a salt print from multiple negatives. The finished composite has crisp details in even the shadowy areas and has views in both directions around an ornately carved corner. “He couldn’t get everything in sharp focus and in the right exposure, so he made a lot of paper negatives and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Fineman. The result is a “perspective that couldn’t really exist. It looks convincing, but you can tell along the seams.”
The sky was a particular challenge for 19th-century photographers. Since emulsions were more sensitive to blue light than to warmer colors, skies had to be overexposed for the foreground to look correct. One solution was simply to paint out the negative to make the sky smooth and white; another was to combine a negative exposed for the sky with one exposed for the rest of the image. But photographers did not limit themselves to negatives from the same time or place. Gustave Le Gray used the same spectacularly evocative sky for three different seascapes, and Carleton E. Watkins inserted towering fluffy clouds above his view of the Columbia River. The blank sky in Watkins’s untouched image, which also appears in the Met show, is “a much more modern-looking picture,” Fineman says, but to 19th-century audiences “clouds looked better—and sold better.”
Salability has often been a powerful motivator for doctoring photos, and the strange and funny have always attracted attention. Fanciful images on cartes de visite and other kinds of prints were wildly popular. Trick-photography postcards showing oversize produce (an ear of corn so huge it requires its own railroad car, or a watermelon as a house) were a big hit in the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. The European equivalents were more romantic. Women appeared in bubbles or clouds. In one, a man raises a bottle to a hand-colored moon with a smiling female face. Portraits were often enlivened by showing the sitter next to her double—or decapitated. Thousands of headless pictures were made from the 1870s through the early 1900s. A poser could be depicted holding (or, in one case, juggling) his own head. “You could go to a photography studio and get a portrait taken with your head on a platter,” Fineman says.
These kinds of photos, while not exactly obscure, have been kept separate from the more respected annals of art history. “Well-known images in the history of photography have often been dismissed as kitsch, as novelties, as bad art, but were extremely popular and important in the 19th century,” Fineman says. Henry Peach Robinson’s Fading Away (1858) and Oscar Gustav Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life (1857), both famous when they were made, still appear in photo-history textbooks but usually as asides. These kinds of images have been repressed, Fineman argues, because they didn’t fit into the history first written by modernists in the 1930s, which is still the standard today.
“Most of us grew up with a history of photography that was written literally and figuratively by the Museum of Modern Art, beginning with Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography,” says Malcolm Daniel, senior curator of the Met’s department of photography. That history celebrates straight photography, the purist school that allowed only minimal darkroom work and emphasized sharpness and tonal range. “It dismissed as irrelevant or worse those aspects that involved self-conscious artifice or fakery or artiness,” Daniel adds.
In the long and complicated relationship between photography and art, pictures have often been altered to prove or improve their status as art, whether by helping to create allegorical scenes and idealized landscapes or through more subtle adjustments. These changes showed that photography “wasn’t purely mechanical, but that the artist’s mind and eye could shape the process,” Fineman says. French photographer Camille Silvy, for instance, used nearly every process available to make his River Scene (1858)—multiple negatives, figures carefully posed onshore and on the water, and reflections of clouds and trees worked over with drawing and brushwork. The result was the essence of a perfect landscape that described no real place but proved Silvy’s good taste.
Several decades later, the Pictorialists made their prints more artlike by evoking the color and texture of painting and drawing, as in Edward Steichen’s famous The Pond—Moonrise (1904), with its blue tint and hazy white moon. How Steichen created this image remains something of a mystery. “It’s a more highbrow version of the day-for-night picture,” Fineman says, referring to the technique whereby an image shot in the daylight is darkened and tinted to pass for nighttime. “Our conservators have been trying to figure out for years how he printed it and what the processes were, because he used a lot of different materials and chemicals and dyes. We don’t know exactly what he did to it, but it was a lot.”
Today, the impulse is still strong to change pictures in order to mark them as art, with Photoshop as the preferred tool. Although plenty of artists forego manipulation, for those who use it, “it’s a way of saying ‘I’ve made conscious decisions. I have a certain dexterity of technique that indicates that I’m not just a snapshooter,’” says Daniel. Outside the art world, the ubiquity of retouched imagery, especially online, has eroded photography’s claim to objectivity and has made the public more aware of how often photographs are manipulated. “We have come to realize you can’t trust the image. You can put someone else’s head on another person’s body, take someone out of a picture,” Daniel says, “but that’s been happening since 1839.”
“Faking It” will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in February, followed by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in July.
Rebecca Robertson is photo editor of ARTnews.