There was a time when one could not take a landscape photograph and develop the light on both the ground and the clouds in the sky; this was a limit of the materials used for camera film. The film could not develop two areas in an image that so greatly contrasted in color. Instead, artists would take two images and in the development process combine the landscape of one photograph with the sky of another. New techniques like this, and the changing relationship of truth and photography, are explored in the new photography exhibit “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” at the National Gallery of Art.
Displaying the scope of photography from the 1880s to the 1990s, curator Mia Fineman, of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, divulges the laborious methods used to manipulate photographs long before the invention of Photoshop. What is now edited and manipulated on the computer was once painstakingly done in the dark room; although the older methods often brought more frustration in the process. The selection of photographs is exceptional, containing all of the trick photography amusement of the nineteenth century, as well as serious developments with landscapes, propaganda, photojournalism, and art.
Photographers have explored the medium with a range of motivations, from the precision that could be portrayed and the perceived truth that accompanied it, to the illusions that could be created in the dark room. The exhibition begins with early photographs and some examples of hand-colored prints; they were enhanced because lack of color was a limitation of the photographic medium. Altering photos to make them perfect was accepted as common practice, whereas today it is common to call “foul” on images that are heavily modified without acknowledgement. A shift in the relationship and understanding of truth with images emerged with the changing manipulations and new techniques.
The Novelties and Amusements section is a historic gem not to be missed. There is something fascinating about unraveling the mysteries of the fantasy images produced with older techniques. Curator Mia Fineman encountered a curious spectacle in her research, the repeated images of disembodied heads. She was perplexed as to why this novelty portraiture was so prevalent, until research led her to magic shows, a very popular form of stage entertainment during the turn of the century.
Artists working in the realm of Surrealism explored photography as a medium to translate the fluidity of dreams and identity into photographs. They wanted pictures to capture the unconscious, which is illustrated in Maurice Tabard’s Room with Eye, by trying to capture the mind’s eye. Through manipulations in the dark room and photomontages, artists were using multiple techniques to explore the depth of their dreams and fantasies. Consider how shocking and exciting these images were at the time; to make something so unreal appear realistic with seamlessly combined images. There is something delightful and dramatically serious about this series.
Themes presented in this exhibition remain popular today and are bounced around the globe in a nanosecond for business, pleasure and amusement; an instant image, a way of communicating. The immediacy of technology at our fingertips is taken for granted. Today’s smartphone contains multiple applications for taking photographs, particularly the ones with manipulated filters like Instagram, Hipstamatic, or even the video application Super 8; are all designed to look like historic film effects. Pre-technology, it was a slow and delicate process in the darkroom, but now the process can be accomplished with a few swipes of your finger. Still, there is a fascination with how and why these photographs were created before digital media was developed.
This exhibition is a snapshot of some of the images that stirred the imagination of
photographers pushing the boundaries of the emerging medium of their time. Captivating
photographs of flying elephants, spirits, imagined landscapes, illustrated dreams,
miniaturized people, and radical propaganda, awaits your scrutiny to inspect and enjoy.