Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

October 11, 2012–January 27, 2013


Jerry N. Uelsmann (American, born 1934). Untitled, 1969. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2011 (2011.407). © Jerry N. Uelsmann

The aesthetic of "straight" photography, which frowns on significant darkroom manipulation, was deeply entrenched in art photography circles in the early postwar era. By the mid-1960s, however, a new generation of artists had begun to chafe at the constraints of photographic modernism and sought to expand the medium's expressive vocabulary beyond that of the pristine black-and-white print. Many young photographers revived earlier techniques of image manipulation to create works that self-consciously and often humorously highlight the mutability of the photographic image.

At the same time, conceptual artists were taking up the camera to record ephemeral actions and situations, using deadpan humor to undercut photography's claims to documentary authority. Other artists turned their attention to the media-saturated culture of postwar America, exploring the collusion between photographers who alter images and viewers who willingly suspend their disbelief, if only for a moment.

The first computer systems for manipulating photographs came into use in the early 1980s and were quickly taken up by newspapers, magazines, and advertising firms. Personal computers and desktop publishing programs were beginning to put the means of print and media production into the hands of ordinary individuals. In 1990 Adobe Systems released Photoshop 1.0. Initially marketed to graphic designers, Photoshop was soon adopted by commercial photographers, then by artists and photojournalists, and, with the introduction of consumer-level digital cameras in the late 1990s, by millions of others, making the art and craft of photographic manipulation widely accessible.