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.