What Did We Do Before Photoshop?

BY Tom LeGro  November 29, 2012 at 10:11 AM EST


Just about every photograph we encounter, whether it’s on a computer screen or in a magazine or on a billboard, has been retouched or manipulated digitally in some way, most likely using Photoshop. From simple retouching like removing red-eye, to complex manipulation like removing people, Photoshop has dramatically changed the way we use the medium of photography. Or has it?

An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shows how photographers long before the digital era regularly employed techniques of manipulation in their work. Some merely compensated for the medium’s limitations, while others used manipulation to create obviously fabricated scenes.

For example, “Fake decapitation was the LOLcats of the 19th century,” Mia Fineman, an assistant curator of photography at the Met and the author of the exhibition’s accompanying catalog, told us.

We corresponded over email with Fineman about the show, “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop”

I think many people will be surprised to learn that photo manipulation began very soon after the invention of photography. What were a couple of the earliest techniques and why were they used? I’m sure there must have been different motives.

MIA FINEMAN: Most of the earliest manipulated photographs were attempts to compensate for the new medium’s technical limitations — specifically, its inability to depict the world as it appears to the naked eye.

When photography was first introduced in 1839, people wondered how a medium that could render forms and textures with such exquisite detail could fail to register the ever-present element of color. Eager to please potential customers, photographers immediately resorted to manual intervention, enlivening their pictures with powdered pigment, watercolor and oil paint.

Early photography was color-blind in other ways as well. In the 19th century, photographic emulsions were much more sensitive to blue and violet light than to other colors on the spectrum, which meant that blue skies almost always appeared blotchy and overexposed. To overcome the problem, many landscape photographers would make two separate negatives — one exposed for the land, the other for the sky — and print them together on a single sheet of paper. The French photographer Gustave Le Gray used this technique in his majestic seascapes of the 1850s. The exhibition features three seascapes by Le Gray, all using the same cloud negative. The show also includes a great pair of before-and-after landscapes by the American photographer Carleton Watkins — one with a blank white sky, the other with added clouds.

What made you decide to put this together and how long did it take? It must have taken a tremendous amount of research.

MIA FINEMAN: The idea for the exhibition grew out of a question that was posed at nearly every presentation on photography that I’ve given or attended in recent years: How has digital technology, especially image-processing software like Photoshop, changed photography’s relationship to truth? I worked on the exhibition for about three years, traveling to museums, archives and private collections all over Europe and North America, compiling the checklist, researching and, of course, writing the book. I was amazed that no one had looked at this subject from a wide-ranging historical perspective before.

Were you surprised by anything you discovered, a photo you did not known had been manipulated or a some novel technique?

MIA FINEMAN: In the course of my research on trick photography, I came across hundreds of pictures of fake decapitations and disembodied heads, in countless variations: a man clutching a sword in one hand and his own head in the other; a man juggling his own head; a man inflating his head with a bicycle pump; a man being served his own head for dinner. This was an incredibly popular trope from about the 1860s to the 1930s, but I had no idea why. Eventually, I discovered a connection between trick photography and stage magic, which was the most popular form of mass entertainment in the late 19th century. Stage magicians often performed illusions featuring decapitation and “talking heads,” and this motif was quickly picked up by photographers, both professional and amateur. Fake decapitation was the LOLcats of the 19th century.

How is the exhibition organized?

The exhibition is organized in seven thematic, roughly chronological sections, each focusing on a particular set of motivations for manipulating the camera image. The story begins with photographers’ efforts to overcome the perceived limitations of the medium in the 19th century — by enlivening their monochromatic images with color, by filling the skies of their landscapes with clouds and by cobbling together complex group portraits from dozens of separate pictures of individuals, a strategy used by many major portrait photographers, including Andre-Adolphe-Eugene Disderi and William Notman.

From there, we turn to the work of fine art photographers for whom the utmost creativity lay not in the act of taking the photograph but in the subsequent transformation of the camera image into a handcrafted picture. This section begins in the 1850s with elaborate composite photographs by Henry Peach Robinson, Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Camille Silvy, and continues with the revival of the Pictorialist mode at the dawn of the 20th century in the work of artist-photographers such as Edward Steichen, Anne W. Brigman and F. Holland Day.

Photography’s reputation for objectivity and veracity has always made it an indispensable tool for persuasion. The third section features photographs that were manipulated for explicitly political or ideological ends, beginning with Ernest Eugene Appert‘s faked photographs of the 1871 Paris Commune massacres and continuing with tendentious images used to foster patriotism, advance racial ideologies and support or protest totalitarian regimes.

The mood lightens a bit in the next section, which brings together a variety of amateur and commercial photographs intended to astonish, amuse, and entertain. These pictures delight in the novelty of the counterfactual: Women grin from inside soap bubbles, storks deliver swaddled infants and ghosts of the deceased hover beside the living.

The fifth section features photographs that were conceived for the printed page, pulling back the curtain to reveal some of the ways newspapers, magazines and advertisers have altered, improved and, sometimes, fabricated images in their entirety to depict events that never occurred — such as the docking of a zeppelin at the tip of the Empire State Building — or that could not be photographed because cameras were unusable or unwelcome.

Next, we turn to the work of modern artists, including Herbert Bayer, Maurice Tabard and Dora Maar, who have used photography to evoke subjective states of mind, conjuring dreamlike scenarios and surreal imaginary worlds, in which women morph into cats and eyes stare from the walls of empty rooms.

The final section presents photographs from the second half of the 20th century by Jerry Uelsmann, Duane Michals, John Baldessari and other artists who have adapted earlier tropes and techniques of image manipulation — spirit photography, composite portraiture, news-photo retouching — to create works that self-consciously and often humorously highlight the inherent mutability of the photographic image.

Are there any manipulations that can’t be done in Photoshop or don’t look as good?

MIA FINEMAN: Not really. The only case I can think of would be an artist or designer who wants the rough, handmade look of cut-and-paste collage with the seams showing. But maybe even that can be simulated digitally.

One of the major differences between manipulation in the darkroom and manipulation with Photoshop is time and physical effort — the click of a mouse vs. exposure and developing, not to mention the mixing of chemicals and wasted sheets of photographic paper. Which is to say that there was a certain amount of craft and patience one had to possess in the darkroom that is much different than using a computer. Do you think this cheapens modern manipulation when used in fine art, because it’s so easy to do now?

MIA FINEMAN: No. Photographers have always used whatever technical means were available to them to create the pictures they wanted to create — Photoshop is the latest tool. That said, I do think there’s a tendency among some contemporary image-makers to overuse digital tools and effects — but it’s mostly a matter of taste. In the commercial world, especially in magazines and advertisements, digital retouchers sometimes get sloppy, but the general public has gotten very good at spotting telltale blunders like missing limbs or misaligned body parts, models with weirdly poreless skin, and errant shadows cast by absent objects. Hence the popularity of blogs like Photoshop Disasters.

I’m curious to know if the photographers in the exhibition did the printing and manipulations themselves or had printers whom they instructed and would work with almost as a partner.

MIA FINEMAN: Most of the photographers in the exhibition did the printing and manipulation themselves. In some cases, it was a team effort. For example, in the late 19th century the Canadian photographer William Notman ran a successful chain of commercial portrait studios, which employed dozens of technicians who worked together to create massive group portraits in which each individual was photographed separately in the studio and then pasted onto realistically painted backgrounds one by one. In the 20th century, Richard Avedon worked very closely with his retoucher, Bob Bishop, who did some very sophisticated manipulation of Avedon’s magazine work.

Who were some of the pioneers in manipulation, some photographers we should know about?

MIA FINEMAN: Notman was actually the most successful photographer in North America in the 19th century — and was a master of photographic illusion — but is not very well known today outside of Canada. However, the practice was so widespread it’s hard to limit it to a few names. Nearly every photographer engaged in some form of image manipulation at some point, even “straight” photographers like Paul Strand and Ansel Adams — they just didn’t talk about it.

Editor’s note: “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through Jan. 27, 2013, and is complemented by an exhibition catalog authored by Mia Fineman. An interactive iPad app, which challenges users to figure out how and why various photographs were manipulated, can be downloaded for free from iTunes.