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Faking It: The Wondrous World of Phony Photography

I just can’t trust pictures anymore in the age of Photoshop. You can change anything. We’ve all heard the trope before; in the age of superfast computers and high-resolution cameras, virtually anyone can do anything to any picture. For the most part, that claim is true, but a new exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows how photographers have been cheating since 1846.

Mia Fineman, the assistant curator of the museum’s department of photography, put together more than 200 doctored photographs from newspapers, magazines, art shows, and other venues, ranging from the mid-nineteenth-century until the advent of Photoshop in the early 1990s. These fascinating images were combined, cropped, layered, painted, touched-up, and otherwise manipulated in darkrooms and studios after the shutter release.

Half the fun of this Adobe sponsored exhibit is finding the alteration before reading about the method. You’re sure to hear “aha! it’s the clouds!” or “look, they just cropped that man into the picture!” as you peruse through the various rooms of the exhibit.

Man Juggling His Own Head, by an unidentified artist from the 1880s, typifies a number of the exhibit’s photographs. As you might have guessed, the artist cropped seven photographs of the same man’s head and pasted them together to create counterfactually amusing eye-candy. In other photographs from the trick-photography phase of the 1890s, mass-produced photographs of giant ears of corn roll on train beds through the Midwest.

After newspapers perfected printing techniques by the end of the 20th Century, photojournalism became a steady element in articles, features, and in-print advertisements. One small problem existed: big bulky cameras had to be at the scene to capture the moment. Sometimes they were there at the right moment, sometimes not. Staging was not uncommon, while fabrications, alterations and enhancements were de rigueur techniques for twentieth-century editors (and, unfortunately, still are).Not all phony photography was designed for entertainment. The exhibit takes on a more serious tone halfway, moving into trickery in visual politics. Under the reign of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, and Chairman Mao Zedong in communist China, photographs were often touched-up for Machiavellian purposes. ­Manipulated images of Stalin show him neatly aligned with his high-level entourage while the original shows a number of low-ranking soldiers posing alongside. The famous portrait of Chairman Mao was highly retouched to give the Marxist a warm, wrinkle-free face as befitting the founding father. One photograph of German prisoners of war in World War II collaged two exposures to show twice the number of captured enemy combatants. Political leaders clearly knew the power of photography to arouse political forces, command public opinion and promote patriotism. So did their critics. In blatantly manipulated montages, cartoonist Alexandr Zhitmorsky lampooned and caricatured Hitler in a remarkably creative and symbolic composition.


The exhibit takes another turn at the conclusion, as it begins to ask serious existential questions. Claude Cahun, who wrestled with the condition of self-alienation, produced Que me veux tu? (what do you want?) in 1929. This two-headed self-portrait was inspired by French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s famous line “I is another.” In the photograph, a haunting image of Cahun’s doppelganger whispers into the other’s ear. We aren’t sure who is real and who is the ghost.

“Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” probes questions that run deeper than photography in the service (and disservice) of news, entertainment and politics. That visual truth has been compromised is no great revelation. Indeed, those who still believe “the camera does not lie” are living in a world of fiction.  Rather, “Faking it” interrogates the capacity of photography to ask more elemental questions about reality, wonder, and transcendence.