How many ways are there to manipulate a photograph? (And manipulation means that a final image differs from the initial image.) As many ways as there are photographers. How long have photographic images been manipulated? Since Day One. Whether through hand-painting color onto black and white images, making double or triple exposures, or using a variety of other imaginative techniques in the darkroom, the notion that images we see reflect reality is, as most of us know, not true. And never has been true. But what is novel – and a visual treat – is to see, in one exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a sweeping chronological history of manipulated photography before Photoshop, not only featuring some 200 images created between the 1840s and 1990s, but pulling back the curtain and showing exactly how the manipulation was done.
Mia Fineman, Assistant Curator in the Department of Photographs, who spent three years hunting down materials for this exhibit, organizes it into seven sections. It begins with “Picture Perfect,” which shows how the earliest 19th Century photographers tried to overcome the medium’s technical limitations, especially its inability to capture color. Color was often painted onto an image. More subtly – and often secretly – to compensate for the uneven sensitivities of early emulsions, dramatic landscapes were created by printing two negatives on a single piece of paper – one exposed for land, the other for sky. And when large group portraits were called for, photographers figured out how to create the illusion by piecing together separate images in the darkroom.
“Politics and Persuasion” reveals the more sinister side of image manipulation for political and ideological reasons. It begins as early as 1871, with faked photographs of the Paris Commune massacres, and reaches a high water mark of “disinformation,” during the Stalinist regime. Purged politicians were regularly “erased” from images to present a falsified past while, at the same time, images of reigning heads of state were altered to illustrate the political alignment of the moment.
On a lighter note, “Novelties and Amusements,” reveals a wide gamut of trick photography. Some are pure fun, others are bizarre images of people holding their own severed heads or ghostly images “proving” that spirits of the dead could return.
“Pictures in Print,” may prove to be the most popular section, with its focus on images in newspapers, magazines and advertisements of the 20th Century, such as the “invented” docking of a zeppelin on the Empire State Building, and the work of photographers, like Avedon, who created iconic fashion images in the 1950s and 60s.
The final section, “Protoshop,” offers some very cool photographs from the second half of the 20th Century. They include Uelsmann’s hauntingly beautiful floating trees and Yves Klein’s “Leap Into The Void.” Fineman uncovered, while researching this show, how Klein set up his flying leap from a second story window, and shares that material with us. It’s an amusing treat.
The exhibition is underwritten by, yes, Adobe, the company that in 1990 transferred all darkroom tricks of the trade to the digital world by launching its first Photoshop software package. And by so doing, made everyone who carries a digital camera – which is most of us – a potential image manipulator of the first order.
A related small exhibit, After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age, on view through May 27 2013, is worth a visit, especially for art-photography geeks whose work is only limited by their technical know how.
These two exhibitions underscore a single truth: photographic images do not depict reality, they depict an individual photographer’s vision of inner and/outer reality. So while it is amazing and amusing to see what photographers have concocted over the decades, it also reminds us that – from war photography to fashion photography – what you see is not what you get. What you see is cut, cropped, diminished, enlarged, enhanced, transformed, transposed, collaged and, yes, faked, in a million different ways.
Photos: Courtesy of the Met Museum