"The history of photography is full of disembodied heads."
Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop By Mia Fineman; Metropolitan Museum of Art, 288 pages. (Link to Amazon Germany, U.K. and Canada.)
Reviewed by Kenneth Tanaka
That photography is an unreliable witness is certainly not a revelation. How many images have you yourself radically altered in the interest of aesthetics, humor, or plain old deception?
You might, however, find it revelatory to learn that photography has been prevarication-prone nearly from day one of its existence. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is a fascinating book, and an associated traveling exhibit, in which the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mia Fineman presents what may be the first scholarly survey of the history of photographic manipulation prior to digital photography. Fineman traces the history of manipulation from the medium's earliest days* up to the 1990s, when the computer began taking over the medium.
At this point you might wonder what Fineman considers manipulation. After all, the core processes of developing and printing any chemical photograph involve what could be considered subjective manipulations (dodging, burning). Fineman makes it clear that more radical techniques such as combination printing, photomontage, overpainting, and retouching are the primary interventions she investigates.
The book is organized topically according to the contextual and objective nature of manipulations. For example, the chapter titled "Mind's Eye" considers how photographs have been creatively wrestled to create impossible visions of fantasy and surreality. "Politics and Persuasion" considers…well, you can guess.
Fineman devotes the final section of the book to detailed discussions of each of the book's plates, something that greatly enriches the book's depth and richness as a reference source.
In case you're repelled by my describing the book as "scholarly," don't be. While it's not quite a lively read, it's far from a dissertation. Fineman features plenty of quite humorous subjects and examples throughout the book (as my leading quote suggests). Like every other Met publication I've seen, this is a top-quality tome. The design is clean and easy on the eyes with a logical organization. The 202 works in the exhibition, most of which are presented in the book, are richly printed.
Faking It is a wonderfully entertaining and informative book that I think is destined to become a classic reference work. By taking a deep wide-angle view of this subject Mia Fineman vividly illustrates that people have been manipulating photographs imaginatively throughout the medium's history.
*Indeed, in the very first pages of the introduction, Fineman discusses what may be the earliest such manipulation in 1845 by Calvert Richard Jones.
Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York: October 11, 2012–January 27, 2013
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.: February 17–May 5, 2013
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: June 2–August 25, 2013
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Gary Nylander: "This reminds me of a great old book that I picked up years ago called The Art of Retouching Photographic Negatives. Published in 1930, I thought it was quite amazing for its time and for just how good some of the retouched photos looked. Back in 2006 I posted on my own blog about the book."