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New Met exhibition explores pre-digital manipulation of photography

Photographers began manipulating their work long before the digital era

“Photographs have never represented the unadulterated truth,” says Mia Fineman, the curator of “Faking It” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first major exhibition to explore the history of manipulated photography before the digital age. “Photographic manipulation is part of a long tradition that has never been examined closely because there has always been a desire to believe photographs represent the truth,” Fineman says. “I want to show that photographs have been manipulated throughout the medium’s history.”

Around 200 photographs taken from 1840 to the 1990s, loaned by 42 public and private institutions including the Met’s own collection, are divided into seven thematic sections – and exhibited alongside reproductions of the negatives – to explore how, and why, photographs were altered.

When photography was first introduced in the early 19th century, photographic emulsions were particularly sensitive to blue light, which meant the sky in landscape photographs was often overexposed. Fineman explains how a technique called “combination printing” was used to combat this shortcoming: “Photographers used two negatives. They exposed one for the land, one for the sky, and then printed the two pictures together on a single sheet of paper.” Three seascapes by French photographer Gustave Le Gray that use the same cloud formation but different sea views exemplify the technique.

According to Fineman, mid 19th-century photographers would manipulate their work for artistic purposes through multiple exposures, taking two or more pictures on a single negative. “Pictures were also created to simply amuse and astonish,” Fineman says. For example, Man Juggling His Own Head, around 1880, by Saint Thomas D’Aquin, depicts a man juggling seven versions of his head. “Photographers masked part of the lens, took the picture, and then masked the other part before taking another picture on the same film,” Fineman explains.

Photojournalism was a new profession in the 1890s and photographers altered their work to ensure publication. For example, in Rainy Day Derby, 1906, by Horace Nicholls, figures in a Derby Day crowd have been duplicated to enliven the scene.

The exhibition includes Stalin-era photographs from the former Soviet Union that wereretouched by the authorities to falsify the past, along with John Heartfield’s 1930s anti-Nazi photomontages. It concludes with photographs from the 1960s to the 1990s, such as Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, 1960, and work by American photographer Jerry Uelsmann. Fineman describes Uelsmann as being “famous for reviving combination printing and influencing artists who now use Photoshop.”

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 27 May 2013

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The ways to tinker with the truth'