Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

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Gustave Le Gray Cloud Study, Light-Dark, 1856-57. Estate of Maurice Sendak. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of ArtGustave Le Gray Cloud Study, Light-Dark, 1856-57. Estate of Maurice Sendak. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The camera never lies.” Ha ha ha! Finally, this trope about the truth-telling properties of the photograph can be officially retired. The camera, a dumb instrument, isn’t capable of lying, and that’s what legitimized the photograph as proof of legal, scientific, and journalistic fact to begin with. But the journey a single exposure travels to the public arena is subject to the imagination, interpretation, and intentions of the photographer. That is the basis for Faking It, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 27, a copious survey that illuminates the extent to which so many photographers throughout the history of the medium strayed from authentic documentation of the actual to achieve their aesthetic ideals.

In a canny revision of photographic orthodoxy, Mia Fineman, who organized the exhibition, lays bare the secrets of a few towering figures. Carleton Watkins, for instance, added clouds to the washed-out skies in his monumental 19th-century Western landscapes by sandwiching two exposures on glass negatives together. Gustave Le Gray did the same thing. Edward Steichen achieved the delicate lunar reflection in The Pond, Moonrise with several hand-applied layers of pigment and platinum salts. So did Ansel Adams, in Moonrise, Hernandez, 1941, darkening the sky with a few virtuoso darkroom techniques to make it look as if the picture had been taken at night. Still, is interpretive printing such a crime? Hardly.

The issue becomes more sinister when photographic manipulation is utilized in an arena where the truth is expected, but the alteration is not divulged. “The camera as witness” is an ironclad tenet of photojournalism, but if a picture is altered, like a 1937 group picture by Heinrich Hoffmann with Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl, in which Goebbels was erased, then fiction is presented as fact. Without basing history on fact, there is no solid ground on which to move forward, and everything civilization is based on crumbles. Perhaps this is a syllogism in the extreme, but you get the point.

Ultimately, Faking It demonstrates that photo manipulation occurred long before the digital revolution began. Photoshop only made the interpretive possibilities – or the deceit – more efficient and, perhaps, less detectable. In the end, the revelation that so many photographers were faking it all along tells us as much about human nature as it does about photography. Whether spicing up reality or obfuscating it, there is no greater mystery than the truth revealed.