Photo-fakery’s long history

By Christopher B. Daly 

As scholars, experts, and darkroom-based photographers have long known, there is a history of faking, editing, and massaging the imagery of photographs that goes back almost to the very beginnings of photography in the early 19th Century. Now comes a terrific exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that examines the phenomenon, titled “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.” The show was put together by the Met’s assistant photo curator, Mia Fineman. The exhibit is accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale University Press.  And, to make the inquiry complete, she has also put together a related exhibit at the Met featuring photos that have been manipulated during the digital era.

The whole thing is a lot of fun, but to my eye, the best feature is the terrific website that accompanies “Faking It.” The Met has put all the photos online, sometimes paired with the unfaked originals. The images are high-resolution .jpeg files. (Click “view all,” and you will be busy for quite a while.)

For my purposes, the best parts are those that involve fakery in journalism and/or history. The exhibit includes some of the classic abuses of photography by the 20th Century’s worst madmen-killers such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Trusted aides and political allies who fall out of favor also ended up falling out of official photos. It is chilling to see real people just “disappear” from scenes.

Then, there are instances where photojournalists could not bring themselves to settle for reality. One of the clearest is the photo “depicting” the execution of the convicted Lindbergh baby-kidnapper. Turns out, photos were banned in the death chamber, and the image is a mash-up of a real person posing in the electric chair with the face of Bruno Richard Hauptmann superimposed. There are many other examples that should wise us all up about the supposed accuracy of photography.



For further reading:

The New York Times had piece on Friday announcing the exhibit.

The Boston Globe had more of a “think piece” about it today.

Author, film-maker, and skeptic Errol Morris has a recent book on the subject, titled Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.”

One more (WRH as a malevolent octupus):

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