Altered pictures have been around since photography’s invention. Until now, however, they have mostly been seen as footnotes and oddities in the medium’s history. “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” on view from October 11 through January 27, argues that everything digital
photography does has been done before—in portraits, photo-illustrations, pictures for newspapers and magazines, and novelty photos. “The technology has changed several times in the course of photography’s history, and that’s part of the history of the medium, but there’s no break between analog and digital,” Fineman says. “It’s a continuum.”
That continuum exists in part because the motivations for tweaking images haven’t changed much. Chief among those reasons is that all cameras have shortcomings—there are things they cannot record. Early photographers in particular relied on darkroom techniques and postproduction procedures to make their pictures look like what they saw, or would have liked to see, with their eyes. When Édouard Baldus photographed a monastery courtyard for Cloister of Saint-Trophime, Arles, in 1851, he encountered a complicated angle and dim light, problems familiar to any photographer. His solution was to patch together a salt print from multiple negatives. The finished composite has crisp details in even the shadowy areas and has views in both directions around an ornately carved corner. “He couldn’t get everything in sharp focus and in the right exposure, so he made a lot of paper negatives and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Fineman. The result is a “perspective that couldn’t really exist. It looks convincing, but you can tell along the seams.”
The sky was a particular challenge for 19th-century photographers. Since emulsions were more sensitive to blue light than to warmer colors, skies had to be overexposed for the foreground to look correct. One solution was simply to paint out the negative to make the sky smooth and white; another was to combine a negative exposed for the sky with one exposed for the rest of the image. But photographers did not limit themselves to negatives from the same time or place. Gustave Le Gray used the same spectacularly evocative sky for three different seascapes, and Carleton E. Watkins inserted towering fluffy clouds above his view of the Columbia River. The blank sky in Watkins’s untouched image, which also appears in the Met show, is “a much more modern-looking picture,” Fineman says, but to 19th-century audiences “clouds looked better—and sold better.”
Salability has often been a powerful motivator for doctoring photos, and the strange and funny have always attracted attention. Fanciful images on cartes de visite and other kinds of prints were wildly popular. Trick-photography postcards showing oversize produce (an ear of corn so huge it requires its own railroad car, or a watermelon as a house) were a big hit in the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. The European equivalents were more romantic. Women appeared in bubbles or clouds. In one, a man raises a bottle to a hand-colored moon with a smiling female face. Portraits were often enlivened by showing the sitter next to her double—or decapitated. Thousands of headless pictures were made from the 1870s through the early 1900s. A poser could be depicted holding (or, in one case, juggling) his own head. “You could go to a photography studio and get a portrait taken with your head on a platter,” Fineman says.