Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review | Faking It Before Photoshop

Cover of Faking It, with photomontage by Wanda Wulz (1932)
Mia Fineman, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. Distributed by Yale University Press. 288 pp, illus (278 color & b&w). Hardcover, $60.00. ISBN 9780300185010.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens

THE TITLE of this book is well-chosen. But another appropriate title would be "Protoshop" (which is in fact the title of one of its chapters). Even more helpful is the subtitle—Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop—in the sense that its readers are forewarned about the thorny concerns and discussions inside. Better yet, inside is a bushel of visual delights since it turns out that this is the catalog for an ongoing exhibition that premiered in October 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, during 2013, will also be exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Not surprisingly, a major sponsor for all of this was the Adobe Corporation, whose Photoshop 1.0 was released in January 1990. Since then, as an essay in the catalog states, that now-famous software is commonly blamed for having undermined “photographic truthfulness” because of the widespread assumption “that photographs shot before 1990 captured the unvarnished truth and that the manipulations made possible by Photoshop compromised the truth.”

Anon, photomontage (photo collage rephotographed), c1930

After reading this book, you will probably reach the conclusion that image alteration tricks attributed to Photoshop are nothing new, and that equivalent techniques have been commonly practiced since 1840 and before. Photoshop’s main contribution has been to make photo manipulation less time staking and far less dependent on manual skills. It has provided the greatest variety of people with access to the tricks long used by photographers, despite our na├»ve assumption that a photograph is “a mirror with a memory,” and, to follow, that the camera is an “innocent eye,” a “pencil of nature,” or an objective observation device that “never lies.” Surely, that was never the case, as this book shows persuasively. At best, as Picasso once said of all guises of art, a photograph is “a lie that [sometimes] tells the truth.”

In the process of showing the history of pre-Photoshop manipulation from about 1835 through 1990, this volume inevitably also becomes a history of photography. Admittedly, it doesn’t cover everything. For example, it lacks the time and space to say very much about “faking it” by other means, like setting up a “factual” scene and claiming it was found that way, or purposely posing ones subjects to look unposed, or providing exotic subjects with culturally inappropriate props to make them more compliant with ethnic stereotypes. more>>>