Page 2 of 2
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.