Faking It: 150 Years of Image Manipulation Before Photoshop


These optical illusions were created not by computers, but by painstaking, clever handiwork.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

"The painter constructs, the photographer discloses," Susan Sontag famously asserted in On Photography. But in the quarter century since, the rise of digital photography and image manipulation software has increasingly transmogrified the photographer into a constructor of reality, a reality in which believing is seeing. Still, image manipulation dates much further back—in fact, to the dawn of photography itself. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (public library), the companion book to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of the same title, traces the evolution of image manipulation from the 1840s to the 1990s, when computer software first began to revolutionize the alteration of photographs.

fakingit1.jpgMan on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit2.jpgDirigible Docked on Empire State Building, New York. (Unidentified American artist, 1930). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit3.jpgA Powerful Collision (Unidentified German artist, 1914). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

These images—artful, subversive, unapologetic in their unreality—serve sometimes to amuse and entertain, sometimes to deliberately deceive, sometimes to comment on social and political issues, and always to give pause with how they tease and taunt our assumptions of optical reality and visual representation.

Met curator Mia Fineman writes in the introduction:

Over the past twenty years, photography has undergone a dramatic transformation. Mechanical cameras and silver-based film have been replaced by electronic image sensors and microchips; instead of shuffling through piles of glossy prints, we stare at the glowing screens of laptops, tablets, and mobile phones; negative enlargers and chemical darkrooms have given way to personal computers and image-processing software. Digital cameras and applications such as Photoshop have create, look at, and think about photographs. Among the most profound cultural effects of these new technologies has been a heightened awareness of the malleability of the photographic image and a corresponding loss of faith in photography as an accurate, trustworthy means of representing the visual world. As viewers, we have become increasingly savvy, even habitually skeptical, about photography's claims to truth.
fakingit4.jpgThe Vision (Orpheus Scene) (F. Holland Day, 1907). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit5.jpgAberdeen Portraits No. 1 (George Washington Wilson, 1857). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit6.jpgFading Away (Henry Peach Robinson, 1858). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit7.jpgLenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922 (Unidentified Russian artist, 1949). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit8.jpgHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec as Artist and Model (Maurice Guibert, ca. 1900). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit9.jpgMan Juggling His Own Head (Unidentified French artist, Published by Allain de Torbéchet et Cie. ca. 1880). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit10.jpgTwo-Headed Man (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit11.jpgRoom with Eye (Maurice Tabard, 1930). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit12.jpgHearst Over the People (Barbara Morgan, 1939). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fakingit13.jpgSueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar / Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home (Grete Stern, 1948). (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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