Before there was Photoshop, there were paints, staging, scissors and glue.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop catalogues photos from the 1840s through the early 1990s demonstrating that people have been altering photos ever since the advent of photography. The Adobe Photoshop-sponsored exhibition shows that the only thing that’s changed is people’s reasoning—and even some of that still holds.
Most early examples of photo altering stemmed from photography’s limitations.
Carleton E. Watkins had to travel the American West with a heavy “portable” darkroom to get his fantastic pictures of the Oregon River, but the film at the time was still unable to capture the sky as anything but a white mass. Editors had to add in cumoloulous clouds after the fact to make the view more normal. The show features dozens of early photos authors spliced with negatives of clouds to overcome the sky’s overexposure.
Photo altering also helped with other difficulties in coordinating a perfect picture: composition, timing and getting everyone in the same picture—without making a dumb face. A 1880s photo company accomplished the latter in a group portrait of the Red Cap Snow Shoe Club in Nova Scotia (1888) by photographing everyone separately and then collaging them back together at scale. Such techniques also helped with the difficult logistics of getting Stalin and Lenin in the same room for a friendly photo.
Of course, there were vainer reasons one would want to alter a photograph, as Robert Johnson demonstrates in his 1930 book The Art of Retouching Photographic Negatives and Practical Directions How to Finish and Color Photographic Enlargements, etc. A portrait of a man with freckles, an uneven stare and a cigar in his mouth becomes a younger man with clear skin, even eyes and no unseemly addiction to tobacco. An unknown artist also heavily retouched the famous portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong to project an ideal of flawless benevolence, instead of old age and tyranny.
Other photo alterations aid conceptual ideas or farce. An unknown author depicted a dirigible docking on the Empire State Building so that weary European travelers might enter midtown sans the need for today’s JFK shuttle, New Jersey Transit or M60 bus. The project never happened but at the time the photo went out on news wires making it appear as if it had.
These days photographers can use Photoshop’s $699 software to create basically anything. It’s nice to know that there are—and were—cheaper ways to fake it.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop
Through Jan. 27, 2013
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.