“Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” , now on view at the National Gallery of Art, is an engaging peek at messing around with photos from the 1840s through the 1980s. It is an exhibit that demands to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Most of the images are original, unfiltered by the obscuring gauze of reproduction, which many photographers relied on to hide the deception.
While some images make no attempt to hide their ruse, I was most drawn to those more subtly manipulated. The taunting puzzles range from Charleton Watkins’s addition of clouds to an image of a river to the chilling progression of deleting Stalin’s supporters and Jerry Uelsmann’s highly refined dreamscapes.
The exhibit provides either before-and-after images or detailed explanations of how the photos were manipulated. I prefer having more evidence laid out before me so that I can deduce on my own how a scene came to be. Luckily, there are plenty of fully developed groupings to satisfy those of us intent on performing photo manipulation-autopsy.
It is a shame that the National Gallery had to make some tough choices to accommodate this thorough review in such a tight space. The show feels cramped, particularly in the narrow, hall-like, opening-and-closing spaces of the five rooms. I was able to see the exhibit’s previous incarnation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where there was more breathing room, allowing crowds to gather around images to fully grasp the photographic tangle of each alteration.
Beyond the simple question of “how did they do that?”, “Faking It” methodically addresses the most intriguing aspect of crimes against photography — the motive. The exhibit matches its four galleries to the key drivers of manipulation: overcoming the limits of technology, entertaining the viewer, swaying opinion and expressing oneself.
When photography was in its infancy in the early 1800s, the technology was greatly limited. Cameras were bulky and exposures had to be very long due to the lack of light-sensitivity of the earliest “films” (emulsions on glass plates, metals and paper). Early film was extremely sensitive to blue light, however, causing details in the sky to be bleached out. To overcome this, photographers printed their landscapes with two separate images of different tonal ranges, as Charleton Watkins did for his 1867 image of Cape Horn on the Columbia River in Oregon. Alas, photographers would often use the same shot of sky and clouds with different landscapes. While their intent was to overcome technology’s limits, this practice unfortunately helped legitimize more devilish photo-manipulation.
Beyond recording the world, a core appeal of photography is that it can be fun. Over a century ago, as this new art form became easier to master, photographers began using the seeming magic of the medium to amaze and amuse. While there were indeed attempts to trick viewers into thinking an image was real, such as double exposures showing “ghosts” lurking in formal portraits, most were just flights of fancy.
No one would believe the 1930s image of 11 men standing on another man’s shoulders, taken by an unidentified artist — particularly when you look closely and see that the roof’s edge and background cityscape don’t align.
As a journalist, I take photography seriously, but that does not mean I won’t Photoshop a Santa hat onto our cat for a holiday card. Photography is not required to be real; it simply needs to be honest, even when done in jest.
One of the strongest powers of photography emanates from the viewer’s desire, even hope, that a photo is true. Those who seek to deceive exploit that trust. Manipulated images can be used to make a political comment, to garner support or to foster fear. The communist revolutionaries of the early half of the 20th century were masters of manipulated photography. Elaborate montages were constructed that extolled, and no doubt invigorated, the masses. But a more ominous use of alteration was the systematic erasing of Stalin’s supporters. When laid out in progression, starting with the original 1926 photo, the increasingly smoothed-over and retouched surfaces seem almost comical, until you realize that some of those deleted were also erased from life. Photo-manipulation with an intent to deceive is the scourge of the medium.
The motives of the final part of the exhibit are not at all underhanded or sinister — they use manipulated photography to make art. When I was a teenager, developing my own prints in a darkroom, I became enthralled with the possibilities of this analog craft. That interest led me straight to the mesmerizing work of Jerry Uelsmann. He created surreal landscapes that were mysterious not only in their message, but also in their highly refined darkroom techniques. I spent countless hours trying to figure out how he was able to build such elaborate constructions, all done as one image. It is a shame that today, Uelsmann’s images feel less spectacular viewed with the knowledge that today’s software can so easily match his craft. To get the most from “Faking It,” try leaving today’s reality of digital unreality behind, and enjoy the immersive pleasure of photography’s analog youth.
David Griffin is the visuals editor of The Washington Post.
West Building of the National Gallery of Art, ground floor. Through May 5. For more information, visit their Web site.