Fake It 'Til You Make It: What Came Before Photoshop

Play associated audio

The term "Photoshopping" has these days become synonymous with photo manipulation. But the practice is much older than the computer software — about as old as photography itself.

An exhibition now on display at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art is exploring just that: The collaging, cutting, pasting and coloring that preceded digital photography.

"You know, we don't necessarily believe that every photograph ... is truthful," says Curator Diane Waggoner, explaining how digital tools have changed the way we see photography. "So this seemed a very timely exhibition, to go back and explore that throughout the history of the medium."

But in a sense, people have always kind of known that photography isn't entirely truthful. In the earliest days, some manipulation was certainly tolerated, if not preferred.

Take 19th-century French photographer Gustave Le Gray, for example. The technology available to him would have made it hard to get both the clouds and the foreground of landscape properly exposed. No problem; he'd grab the clouds from one negative and the beach from another, and combine them to make the perfect scene, and everyone was happy.

"Many of the earliest manipulated photographs were attempts to compensate for the new medium's technical limitations, especially its inability to register color," the exhibition language reads.

"But of course, when you actually saw what [the camera] produced, there were distortions, there were problems," Waggoner elaborates. "So it was understood that you might do certain things in order to make a photograph look more like what you saw in real life."

As photography became more widespread, artists like the surrealists began experimenting. Photo manipulation was also a tool for propaganda.

"The falsification of photographs was notoriously widespread in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin," the exhibition language reads. A famous series of photos, doctored over time, shows the slow, chilling disappearance of men from Stalin's inner circle — from four party officials in the original image to one.

The exhibition raises questions about truth in photography. Is there such a thing? Even if you don't physically alter the image, isn't composition itself a form of manipulation?

"Sometimes a photograph can be posed because it excludes something," film director Errol Morris once said. "Isn't there always an elephant just outside the frame?"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

Your Turn: Sexual Assault, Nate Parker And More

Director Nate Parker's college rape case is resurfacing and putting off would-be fans of his highly anticipated film "The Birth of a Nation." What do Washingtonians think?

NPR

Minnesota Cracks Down On Neonic Pesticides, Promising Aid To Bees

Minnesota's governor has ordered new restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been blamed for killing bees. Many details of the plan, however, remain to be worked out.
WAMU 88.5

Donald Trump’s Immigration Plan And His Visit To Mexico

Donald Trump lays out a plan for immigration after a meeting with Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto. An update on the Republican presidential nominee’s proposals on immigration, illegal drugs and trade.

WAMU 88.5

Results From Congressional Primary Races And New Concerns About Hacks Into State Voting Systems

Join us to discuss results from primary challenges to Republican Senator John McCain, Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and others and new concerns possible Russian hackers breaking into U.S. state voting systems.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.