Sunday, February 24, 2013

Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through May 5, 2013

Photoshop has become such a part of our lives now, that we have to remind ourselves that it was not always so easy to manipulate photographs.  Before you could change images with a few clicks of a mouse, you had to spend hours in a darkroom to achieve such effects.  This exhibit at the National Gallery takes us back in time to explore the world of "fake" photography - where seeing isn't always believing.

The first use of manipulated photography was to make up for the early limits of the medium.  Gorgeous landscape photographs lacked any definition in the sky, so photographers used two different negatives to make one picture.  It's fake in the sense that it isn't one picture, it's two in combination, but it's clearly meant to give a more realistic idea of the subject than regular photography of the time would permit.  Of course, once you can alter photographs to make them more realistic, you can also alter them to improve on reality.  Postcard photographers would combine images of a city in order to create a perfect view - just like the painters of "view paintings" that I saw at the National Gallery last year.  Photographers added color to their subject's face or created group photographs by taking pictures of people one by one, and then putting all the photos together.

The problem is that once you start improving on reality, where does it end?  What can the viewer trust to be true?  The exhibit does not back away from the dark side of photography, and devotes an entire section of the show to the uses it has been put to by politicians and other demagogues.  The photos that stuck in my mind from this portion are the ones from the Stalin era, as one by one, followers who fell out of favor were removed from an official photograph.  The truly frightening thing is not that these people were removed from a photograph, but that they were removed permanently in life as well.  Photographs can be used to move public opinion, and when images are fake, public opinion can be moved in terrible directions.

The final section of the show concentrates on photography as an art form.  Yes, the images are faked, but that's obvious to all but the most naive viewer.  Note that there is a sucker born every minute - William Mumler created ghost photographs, which he told the credulous depicted their departed loved ones.  Happily, he was eventually arrested on charges of fraud and larceny.  Others, however, used the medium with no intent other than to create works of art.  The photo pictured above is one by Yves Klein, which I saw at his big retrospective at the Hirshhorn several years ago (pre-blog, in fact), called Into the Void.  I was quite underwhelmed by Klein's work, but I liked this shot - I find it clever.  I'm sure it's meant to represent a man trying to kill himself, and should therefore be depressing, but I find it exhilarating somehow, as if the man is flying out of the window, and about to take off into the wild blue yonder.

Verdict: This is a good show - well organized and thought-provoking.  It's manageable in a lunch hour, but if you want to linger over any of the photographs, it will take a bit longer than a mid-day break.

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