The urge to modify camera images is as old as photography itself—only the methods have changed. Nearly every type of manipulation we now associate with digital photography was also part of the medium's pre-digital repertoire: smoothing away wrinkles, slimming waistlines, adding people to a scene (or removing them)—even fabricating events that never took place.
This international loan exhibition traces the history of manipulated photography from the 1840s through the early 1990s, when the computer replaced manual techniques as the dominant means of doctoring photographs. Most of the two hundred pictures on view were altered after the negative was exposed—through photomontage, combination printing, overpainting, retouching, or, as is often the case, a blend of several processes. In every instance, the final image differs significantly from what stood before the camera at any given moment.
Whether modified in the service of art, politics, news, entertainment, or commerce, the pictures featured in the exhibition adopt the seamlessly realistic appearance of conventional photographs. They aim to convince the eye, even if the mind rebels at the scenarios they conjure, such as a woman bathing in a glass of champagne or a man brandishing his own severed head.
Over the past two decades, digital technology has made us all more keenly aware of the malleability of the photographic image, and many lament a loss of faith in the testimony of the camera. What we have gained, however, is a fresh perspective on the history of the medium and its complex relationship to visual truth. Through today's eyes, we can see that the old adage "the camera never lies" has always been photography's supreme fiction.
Many of the earliest manipulated photographs were attempts to compensate for the new medium's technical limitations—specifically, its inability to depict the world as it appears to the naked eye. When photography was introduced in 1839, its admirers wondered how a medium that could render forms and textures with such exquisite detail could fail to register the ever-present element of color. Eager to please potential customers, photographers resorted to manual intervention, enlivening their pictures with powdered pigment, watercolor, and oil paint.
Early photography was color-blind in other ways as well. In the nineteenth century, photographic emulsions were much more sensitive to blue and violet light than to other colors on the spectrum, which meant that blue skies almost always appeared blotchy and overexposed. To overcome the problem, many landscape photographers would make two separate negatives—one exposed for the land, the other for the sky—and print them together on a single sheet of paper.
The group portrait presented other challenges. Exposure times were long, and someone in a large group would almost inevitably move or adopt an awkward expression. Busy clients might even fail to show up for the portrait session. To ensure good results, some photographers posed each individual separately in the studio then pasted the figures into the composition one at a time. Postcard publishers adopted similar techniques to transform austere landscape photographs into "picture perfect" views, altering the topography of the land with scissors and paste.
In the 1850s and early 1860s photography's potential as an artistic medium was a hotly debated topic: Could the camera transcend its mechanical nature and be used toward imaginative and expressive ends? For many Victorian critics, the aesthetic value of photography hinged on the artist's ability to creatively shape the raw material recorded by the camera's lens. By means of elaborate staging and combination printing—a technique in which portions of multiple negatives are combined into a single picture—photographers with artistic aspirations fabricated seamless tableaux, molding the real to the contours of the ideal.
The tradition of fine-art photography continued with Pictorialism, a movement that began in Europe in the 1880s and soon took hold in the United States. The Pictorialists sought to intensify photography's expressive potential through the use of soft-focus lenses, textured printing papers, and processes that allowed the surface of the print to be modified by hand. In many cases, photographers composed their pictures from two or more negatives, as did Edward Steichen in his heroic portrait of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Other artists, swept up in the currents of mysticism that captivated bohemian circles around the turn of the twentieth century, relied on staging and multiple exposure to reconcile the camera's clear-eyed factuality with the ethereal realm of myths, dreams, and visions.
Related Essay: "Pictorialism in America"
Photography's reputation for factual objectivity has always made it a powerful tool for propaganda. The photographs in this section of the exhibition were manipulated—by the photographers themselves or by other interested parties—for a variety of political and ideological ends: to sway public opinion, to foster patriotism, to advance racial ideologies, to support or protest totalitarian regimes. The falsification of photographs was notoriously widespread in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, but the temptation to "rectify" photographic documents has proved irresistible to modern demagogues of all stripes.
In another tradition of photographic propaganda, the manipulation of images is blatantly rhetorical rather than deceptive. Before and during World War II, artists such as John Heartfield and Alexandr Zhitomirsky drew on the pictorial traditions of caricature and political cartooning to create anti-Nazi photomontages with an incisive satirical edge.
The technique of composite portraiture, in which several individual portraits are merged into a single generic face, has been used to promote positions across the ideological spectrum. The English polymath Francis Galton devised the technique in the 1870s to support his theory of eugenics—the now-discredited science of improving the human species through selective breeding—but it was later adopted for a variety of purposes, from revealing the face of the average Harvard student to promoting progressive social reform.
The genre of trick photography was born in the studios and darkrooms of professional photographers in the late 1850s. To supplement their day-to-day business, many commercial portrait studios offered an assortment of counterfactual novelties: images of tiny men in stoppered glass bottles, spirit photographs that reunited clients with ghostly images of their deceased relatives, and "polypose" pictures, in which individuals appear to consort with their own doubles. By the 1890s trick photography had grown into a widespread fad among darkroom hobbyists, who picked up the latest techniques from popular science magazines and photography journals.
Unidentified artist. Published by Allain de Torbéchet et Cie. Man Juggling His Own Head, ca. 1880. Collection of Christophe Goeury
Trick photographs work much like magic tricks: they generate a pleasurable incongruity between what the eye sees and what the mind knows. In fact, turn-of-the-century photographers and stage magicians shared many spooky motifs—such as ghosts and mock decapitations—which elicited from viewers a similar mixture of wonder, skepticism, and curiosity about the artistry behind the illusions.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, trick photography began to be commercialized and mass-produced in a new and distinctly modern form: the picture postcard. While European postcard publishers turned out fantasy cards featuring visions of erotic love and longing, their American counterparts adapted the frontier tradition of the "tall tale," crafting images of colossal rabbits, leviathan fish, and gigantic ears of corn.
With the perfection of halftone printing in the 1890s, newspapers and magazines began publishing photographs on a regular basis. Photojournalism was still in its infancy, however, and standards of veracity were in flux. Were news photographs supposed to be strictly factual eyewitness reports, or could they be modified and embellished after the fact, like the drawings by newspaper sketch artists?
News editors, who had long relied on hand-drawn illustrations, soon discovered that photography was subject to a variety of irksome limitations, the most fundamental of which was the requirement that the cameraman be present at a scene. Throughout the twentieth century, newspaper photographs were routinely altered, improved, and sometimes fabricated in their entirety to depict events that could not be photographed because conditions made cameras unusable or unwelcome.
By the 1930s photography had become the medium of choice in print advertising. Art directors embraced the camera's capacity to produce images that not only mirrored reality but also shaped it to reflect consumers' desires. Like advertisements, fashion and magazine photographs were subject to creative manipulation at every stage of the process, from storyboard to post-production. The stakes were highest on magazine covers, where photography and text were combined into a posterlike advertisement for the magazine itself.
The Surrealist movement, founded in Paris in 1924, attracted photographers whose radical experiments had a profound impact on the medium's aesthetic evolution. Surrealist photographers devised many formal strategies to tap the creative power of dreams and the unconscious, yet all faced the same underlying question: How could the camera's eye be pried away from external appearances and made to represent the invisible inner world of thoughts, dreams, fears, fantasies, and desires? By manipulating the camera image—through multiple exposure, sandwiched negatives, photomontage, and other darkroom magic—artists exploited photography's illusionism to conjure fantastic scenarios that evoke the hallucinatory vividness of dreams.
By the late 1930s the outlandish iconography of Surrealism had begun to infiltrate mainstream commercial culture. No one did more to expand the movement's reach than the artist Salvador Dalí. His bizarre iconography and meticulous technique influenced the work of many mid-century photographers, including George Platt Lynes and Angus McBean, who played up the campy aspects of Surrealist dream imagery. Others extended the legacy of Surrealism in more personal, idiosyncratic directions, altering the photographic image to bridge the gap between visible reality and the metaphysical realm of the imagination.
Related Essay: "Photography and Surrealism"
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.
The exhibition is made possible by Adobe.
The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.