Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is a singular and surprising exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It contains hundreds of strange and fascinating pictures from the first century and a half of photography, all of them altered in different ways. High art, amateur tinkering, satire, and purposeful deception mingle in the galleries.
The idea, not a new one, is that picture-taking has never been a purely documentary medium. From the beginning, photographers have messed around with images with lots of different techniques, for different reasons. They made multiple exposures in the camera, overlaid negatives in the darkroom, retouched prints, and more. But never before this exhibition have so many great examples, famous and unknown, been assembled together.
Wandering through the show, Kurt Andersen realized that each image could be plotted along two axes: "One axis is whether the manipulation makes the image look Real or Unreal; the other, Romantic vs. Cynical. With those two axes, I started putting every image I saw into one of four quadrants. For instance, a famous picture of Lenin and Stalin sitting together in 1922 was retouched in 1949 to make Stalin look bigger (and better) than Lenin: very Realistic and totally Cynical."
And what about today's digital manipulations? The Photoshopped images all around us in style magazines and advertising tend to be realistic, and often cynical, designed to prettify reality. The antiquing filters we play with on Instagram, on the other hand, acknowledge fakery and have fun with nostalgia.