Recently opened at the National Gallery of Art, "Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop," explores the world of photographic editing prior to digital software. The exhibit comes to the District from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the mind of curator Mia Fineman.
The exhibit attempts to correct the erroneous assumption that manipulating photography is a craft exclusive to the Digital Era. Viewers will be fascinated by the cleverness, determination, and success of the earliest photographic editors.
Historical recognition for photographic greatness commonly goes to the big names in the history of photography -- Alexander Gardner for his Civil War images, William Henry Jackson for his western landscapes, and Ansel Adams for his iconic American scenery. This exhibit pays homage to the lesser-known and even unknown artists whose practice in photographic manipulation paved the way for photography artists today.
The exhibit takes the viewer through themes of perfecting the image, artistic artifice, politics, humor, prints and concludes with modern artists utilizing similar techniques in manual photographic alteration.
In taking the viewer on a tour of the past and returning to the present the exhibit frames the earliest manipulated photography in the same progression of modern-day photo-editing.
Hand-touched photographs, photomontages, and sandwiched negatives are examined for the artists' skilled techniques and accomplished aesthetic.
Throughout the exhibit themes of truth, falsehood, lies and magic are evoked to describe the community of photographic manipulation in which these artists worked.
The curatorial positioning of this altered artwork as fabricated falsehood adds a layer of complexity to the exhibition. The viewer is forced to consider not only the greatness of photographic editorial achieved by these artists, but also the philosophical significance of the altered image itself.
The humor section of the exhibit begs for interaction from the viewer. With severed heads, ghosts, and other impossibilities this section provokes laughter, awe, and reverence for the craft of hand-touched photographic manipulation.
One of the best images in this section is by an unidentified French artist, published by Allain de Torbechet, circa 1880, of a man juggling seven copies of his own head.
Closing the exhibit with modern photography with old manipulation techniques solidifies the significant role manually altered photographic art plays in the history of the medium.
American Jerry N. Uelsmann's "Self-Portrait as Robinson and Rejlander" (1964) is the perfect combination of historically-based photo-editing technique joined with modern aesthetic sensibilities.
Lovers of black-and-white photography, technology, and history alike will find the exhibit enthralling. "Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop" is a one-of-a-kind must-see exhibit.
The exhibit is open through May 5, 2013. The National Gallery of Art West Building is located at 4th and Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C.