About The Cover

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

BY Lyle Rexer, September 1, 2012

Oliver Wendell Holmes, photography’s first great critic and master of the lapidary phrase, once remarked that with the advent of the medium, we might just as well crumple up the world and toss it away, since we now had the images of it. He was referring to the medium’s representational accuracy, but photographers were way ahead of him. From day one, they knew their images often bore a dubious relation to what they supposedly mimicked, and they crumpled up the world and left it behind in favor of a fabricated, illusory truth. This is photography’s dirty secret, its unwritten history, according to Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Mia Fineman: photography was never “straight,” and its mechanical character did not remotely guarantee a one-to-one correspondence between subject and representation. “Photoshop changed photography’s relation to ‘truth’ a lot less than we think,” she says. Her exhibition,Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (October 11-January 27), would once have been regarded as an exotic diversion.  But in light of the digital revolution and the many challenges posed by artists to conventional ideas of photography in the last two decades, the fringe has become the center. The presentation of this dirty secret takes its place beside the Met’s earlier exhibition on so-called spirit photography, The Perfect Medium, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exploration of scientific photography, Brought to Light, and the Museum of Modern Art’s The Original Copy, on the photography of sculpture. Taken together, they contribute to an alternative history of the medium that can remove the blinders of technological and formal/aesthetic descriptions in place since the 1930s. Before the era of “truthiness,” there were many motives and occasions for manipulation. If you wanted to shoot a landscape in, say, 1860, you needed to collage two exposures, one for the ground, one for the sky. And if, in 1920, you wanted to rewrite the official record, a bit of retouching would suffice to remove a purged political opponent from the visual archives. That impulse to magical thinking was updated in a New Yorker cartoon in which a doctor holding an X-ray addresses a hospital patient: “The X-ray shows you have a fracture but we Photoshopped it out and you’re good to go.” As Fineman points out, not all the manipulations were meant to deceive. Our cover image, by an anonymous photographer from the 1930s, winks at us about the photograph’s malleability, complete with cropping instructions. Says Fineman, “This Busby Berkeley routine isn’t real but it’s convincing. We want to believe it.” In a lighthearted way, the image captures a tension inherent in the medium itself, or our expectations of it—a desire to confirm all the things that can’t be shown directly: dreams, wishes, fantasies, and spiritual longings. If photographers crumpled up the world, it was always with the hope of gaining access to a new one.