Reviewed by Anthony Lepore
To erase age, revise history, beautify the landscape, and raise the dead—these are the magic tricks explored in Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, Mia Fineman’s catalogue on the subject for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book’s credits announce, “this exhibition is made possible by Adobe Systems Incorporated,” a humorous admission of commercial complicity for a show who’s theme ostensibly points away from the digital.
The less compelling sections in this collection describe the ham-fisted tricks and collages produced for commercial or propaganda purposes. Images of a woman’s body shrunk into a sparkling champagne glass, or men’s faces as the fingernails on a tyrant’s hand, begin to articulate the limits of the technology.
The catalogue’s narrative follows both commercial and artistic histories of visual manipulation, methodically describing nearly every technique the medium has employed. Despite a wealth of compelling images, this volume is burdened by exposition, and the focus on craft rather than on art plays out like a textbook.
The strongest images here expose the tightrope walk between an idealist vision and pragmatic reality. Albert Sands Southworth’s Woman in a Plaid Dress, ca. 1850, compares a daguerreotype of a woman in her fifties to a retouched copy. With lead pencils and applied medium, Southworth delicately washes time off this woman’s face, reconstructing an ideal that may have never existed. The false sense of time between these images creates a haunting space for the viewer to perch and watch life move backwards. This dual perspective is privileged information, as the subject of the image and her contemporary viewers may have only seen the retouched portrait. Likewise, the book opens with a sequence of the separate photos that were composited into Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, 1960, and the magic of the iconic image is in no way diminished by the reveal.
In the final chapter, contemporary artists make an eloquent argument for the manipulated image. William Wegman’s Family Combinations, 1972, crudely composites a portrait of the artist’s face onto images of his parents. These photographs hint at the melancholy of aging in Southworth’s Woman in Plaid, but add humor and strange questions of familial inheritance and visual congruity. They also foreground the photographic manipulation, rather than attempting to disguise it, subverting the polished visual language now popularized by Photoshop.
This book elucidates a history of manipulation that seems especially timely. It succeeds most in those moments that expose glimpses of the working process, uncovering a meeting place between human longing and technology, the desire to fix memory and the impulse (along with the means) to manipulate it.
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Mia Fineman, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012)
Images: Cover and interior images from Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.