New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 4 January 23 to 29, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Black Magic

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop
R. Wayne Parsons
Does the Camera Lie? by Unknown. Source: metmuseum.org
Unknown, "Does the Camera Lie?" c 1900

Typically the Met does not tout its fakes. But that policy has been thrown out with the trash in the fascinating exhibition “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” now on view in the photography galleries. Atypical in that it is built around technical issues rather than the more common approach of an artist/artistic school or a substantive topic, this show possesses a good deal of showmanship, for it isn’t really about fakes. Rather, it examines ways pre-Photoshop photographers have used various procedures to overcome the technical limitations of the medium.

And the PT Barnum aspect of the exhibition has paid off, as the crowds are among the largest I can recall at any recent photo show at the museum. The first form of deception we are introduced to is the simple expedient of hand coloring monochromatic photo prints, the only practical way in the 19th century of satisfying the public’s desire for color photographs. One of the loveliest photographs in the show is a c. 1850 Southworth and Hawes Daguerreotype of a young woman that has been subtly hand colored. Unfortunately, the wall texts do not point out that hand coloring of black and white images did not begin with photography, but in woodblock prints and engravings several centuries prior.

The most frequent trick up the photographer’s sleeve in this exhibition is compositing. An early motivation for this form of manipulation was the restricted luminance range photo emulsions could handle. In landscape photography, for example, a properly exposed sky resulted in a dark terrain with no detail, while an acceptable rendition of the terrain was accompanied by a white featureless sky. The solution was compositing. The photographer made separate exposures for the sky and land portions of the image and the negatives were printed. The prints were cut up (after all, they were on paper), the desirable parts of each image carefully reassembled into a larger image, and the result re-photographed; retouching with ink or some other medium might have been necessary to minimize edge effects and harsh transitions and create the impression of a single original image. A widely heralded master of compositing was Frenchman Gustav Le Gray, who clearly knew how to muster his resources; included in the show are three seashore scenes at different locations in France, but each printed with the same cloud-scape.

Compositing was also used as an all-purpose solution for other problems. For example, it circumvented the difficulty of assembling large number of individuals for a group portrait. An absent individual could be photographed separately and inserted into the photo at a later time. A Matthew Brady image of General Sherman and his generals illustrates this technique. Unfortunately, results were often less than perfect, and a close inspection reveals the sharper, unnatural-looking edges of the pasted-in general’s figure compared to his peers who arrived promptly.

Perhaps the epitome of nineteenth century compositing can be found in the elaborate artistic creations of Oscar Rejlander, represented here by his two most popular images, “Two Ways of Life” and “Fading Away”. These images seem to us now to be overly sentimental and moralistic, but they established Rejlander as a leading “Art” photographer of his day.

Compositing was also used for creating pure entertainment. “Tall tale” postcards, depicting counterfactual humorous scenes, such as light bulbs as big as railroad cars, men in bottles, giant watermelons, was a popular genre in the early 20th century. Similar techniques were used to create souvenir photos for tourists. These and other trick techniques were popular with amateur photo enthusiasts as well, and several how-to books aimed at this audience are included in vitrines.

Untitled by Jerry Uelsmann. Source: metmuseum.org
Jerry Uelsmann, "Untitled" 1976

Figuring prominently in the creation of political and social propaganda, compositing wasn’t all fun and games, or even art. If trickery could insert people into an image, it could also take them out. Examples document the well-known practice in Stalinist USSR of excising without comment from images those political figures who had fallen from favor; the public was left to draw its own rather obvious conclusions. Barbara Morgan’s famous image of William Randolph Hearst as an octopus whose tentacles are into everything is another representation of this approach. Also notable are several anti-Germany propaganda images from both world wars.

Nevertheless the 20th century also saw serious artistic creations based on compositing. Notable examples in the exhibition are works by such practitioners as Edward Steichen, Clarence John Laughlin, Frederick Sommer, Martha Rossler, Duane Michaels and Jerry Uelsmann.

This exhibition is both too large and not large enough. With close to 200 images plus texts on display, there is no need, for example, for so many composited group photos. The educational potential of the show is diminished by the failure to follow up on these manipulations and relate them to subsequent developments of the medium, a surprising omission given that this exhibition is all about technique. For example, though the show opens with examples of early hand-colored black-and-white images, no discussion of later 20th century photographers who hand colored their images for esthetic reasons follows.

Also missing from the exhibition is any discussion of the transition from cut and paste compositing to compositing created in the darkroom with modern enlarging equipment, a technique done with especial brilliance by Jerry Uelsmann.

Finally, it would be informative to note that technical progress in the medium relentlessly continues, epitomized by the recent emergence of High Dynamic Range photography. A contemporary photographer need only mount the camera on a tripod, take a few shots at different exposures, and send the results to software to overcome exposure problems more rapidly and effectively than ever before.

Despite these limitations, this is a truly noteworthy exhibition that will appeal to anyone interested in the medium and how it has changed technically over the better part of the last two centuries.


Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop


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Thursday, October 11 to
Sunday, January 27, 2013
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