Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, now up at the Met, has obvious appeal. It’s the first major exhibition to examine manipulated photography, and manipulated photography—and learning to spot it—is fascinating to anyone with a pulse. To be honest, I didn’t think the exhibition could possibly come through on the promise of the topic. Curator Mia Fineman, though, has created an exhibition that manages to give a comprehensive history of manipulation, cast doubt over photography’s potential for authenticity, and provoke and reward close looking. You should go, and you should bring your mom, because she’ll get it too.
The show arranges its 200-odd photographs in roughly chronological themes, each arranged around a motive: as you walk through the rooms, you see doctoring for perfection, for art, for propaganda, for amusement, for publications, and to express pyschological states. The processes involved often take a backseat, but many works are accompanied by studies and negatives, placed next to the final images to show exactly which bits were replaced or blocked out with india ink.
The arrangement of the works is a highlight throughout, and creates more than a few punchlines. At one point I spent a few seconds looking at each of three ho-hum 1850s seascapes by the French photographer Gustave Le Gray, wondering where the manipulation was. It wasn’t until I read the wall text that I noticed Le Gray had inserted the exact same sky into each photo. A room away, a vitrine of Soviet-era history books each show the same photograph of Joseph Stalin and Sergey Kirov, then the local Party leader in Leningrad, standing with three other Communist Party members at a regional conference. Looking at the photos from left to right—in chronological order—you can watch as officials are picked off one by one in Stalin’s purges. Ultimately, only Stalin and Kirov remain. Kirov, meanwhile, was assassinated in 1934; many suspect he was killed by Stalin’s secret police to produce a justification for the first Great Purge.
As Ken Johnson of the Times has pointed out, Faking It runs parallel to the photographic canon, never bothering to provide the counterpoints to Alfred Stieglitz’s "straight photography," which in the 1910s pushed for "absolute, unqualified objectivity,” or the generally honest industry of mainstream 20th-century photojournalism. One of the exhibition’s surprises, though, is how often photographers known for their straightforwardness crossed the line into photomanipulation: Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, two of the photographers that Stieglitz championed most fervently, are both featured in the exhibition, along with Weegee and many of the best-known photographer-experimenters of the 19th century.
That said, some of the most revealing moments come from looking at the work of photomanipulators who weren’t very good. In the exhibition’s constellation of man-holding-his-own-head photographs—there are many—a late-19th-century photomontage of a “murder scene” by an unidentified French artist looks downright amateurish. The way it looks amateurish, though, is strikingly familiar: the artist composed the scene from photographs taken under different lighting conditions, got messy clipping around the disembodied head’s hair, and left the seams of his montage on areas that should have been consistent—a wall in the background—rather than along the edges of figures, where they would be less visible. They’re exactly the sort of flaws we’d expect in a poorly done Photoshop today.
Unavoidably, many of the photographs are funny. A whole room is given over to trick photography, with motives ranging from advertisement to simple humor. One stereoscopic photograph shows a stork delivering a baby in 3D. Another group of photographs from the turn of the century tell tall tales, purporting to show the giant fish, giant lightbulbs, and giant corn of the American West, often accompanied by a jokey caption. Much of the work in the room would look perfectly at home on your aunt’s Facebook wall.
The origin of that kind of populist appeal is one of the better stories the exhibition tells. In the earliest works on display, manipulation was a simple necessity, aiming to fix basic issues with the photographic methods of the time: some photos are doctored to avoid the problem of blue skies appearing overexposed, and others are composited to get group shots where nobody blinks. Later, photomanipulation flourishes in secret, producing outright dishonesty, like Eugène Appert’s photographs of the supposed firing squads of the 1871 Paris Commune, in which everyone pictured is an actor and all the heads have been pasted in from studio portraits. Finally, trick photography becomes popular for its very duplicity, and inspires the sort of “how’d they do that?” close attention that advertising—or propaganda—can profit from. The show’s shift from fooling the public to entertaining the public feels good; I was relieved when I could stop asking “How’d they ever fall for that?” and join my ancestors in laughing at a giant ear of corn.
Perhaps that’s why the small companion show across the hall, After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age, feels like such a letdown. It never attempts to continue the cultural story told by Faking It, instead showing the continuation in terms of method. It sorta-kinda accomplishes that. One success is Jason Salavon’s "Portrait (Hals)" (2009), which composites the many portraits of the Dutch Old Master Frans Hals into a single norm, recalling the “Composite Portraits of Criminal Types” of the Victorian eugenicist Francis Galton on display next door. One failure is a pair of Kelli Connell’s double self-portraits, which seem pretty lame when you look at them immediately after looking at a dozen double self-portraits from a century ago. The defense here is obvious: the earlier photographs were inventing a process, but Connell shouldn’t be faulted for using it toward her own goals; to think that way is to submit to the ravenous emphasis on newness (and moreover branding that newness) that has characterized contemporary art since Conceptualism. All I know is that I heard the same joke 13 times today, and Connell was the last to tell it.
In any case, "Somebody who isn’t dead did this, too" only gets the show so far, and the art is all too arty to be taken seriously. In Faking It, the motives behind photomanipulation are at the forefront, and provide a good deal of the entertainment; in After Photoshop, the motive is generally “because I’m a contemporary artist and this is what I wanted to do,” which isn’t half as interesting.
I’d have preferred it if After Photoshop had continued with Faking It’s undercurrent examining popular reactions to manipulated photos; after all, “Photoshop” is mostly shorthand for “widely available image-editing tools” and probably represents a shift in mass culture more than a shift in high art. For that, you’d have to go to the Museum of the Moving Image, a month ago, for We Tripped El Hadji Diouf: The Story of a Photoshop Thread. We Tripped El Hadji Diouf took a Photoshop thread from the popular Something Awful forums and put it in a museum; curator Jason Eppink didn’t go to great lengths to explain why that was a reasonable thing to do, and the show didn’t really have too much else to say. Still, here was a museum showing dozens of doctored versions of the same image, produced by folks with no particular expertise, and intended not for galleries but to get a few chuckles from somebody. That’s a lot closer to the life after Photoshop I know.