Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
[Quick note: Yes, this is a blog about the writing and editing life. Not infrequently, though, I write about the other arts, too– and I use that term broadly. I’m inspired by many things, and I like to share what I find relevant to writing from these other disciplines.]
Despite the fact that I’ve had more boarding passes than weekly Metrocards in my pockets over the past two months, I somehow managed to slip in a visit to the Met a few weeks ago to see “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop,” which opened on October 11 and runs through January 27.
The Met bills “Faking It” as “the first major exhibition devoted to history of manipulated photography before [the] digital age,” and while I expected that I’d enjoy the exhibit, I didn’t expect that the impact of seeing it would continue to resonate nearly a month later.
We’re such poor students of history, we humans. Generation after generation, we lament that nothing is pure anymore, that we’re really–no, really!– going to hell in a hand basket this time, and that nearly every age before ours was simpler, more satisfying, and, in general, lacking the vices and apparent absence of values afflicting our own age.
We^ fail to see the evidence that every generation preceding us has felt exactly the same way.
These feelings apply to all sorts of aspects of human life, but are, perhaps, particularly marked in the realm of photography. We seem to share a general agreement that Photoshop ushered in an era of irrevocable change, one in which “the truth” could be changed: made partial… or made up entirely.
This is precisely the reason why “Faking It” is so powerful: it provides vivid, indisputable evidence that human beings have never been entirely on the up and up, especially when it comes to photography.
Today, “purists” lament that photography’s ability to convey “truth” has somehow become diluted by Photoshop and other editing tools, as well as by programs (Instagram and Hipstamatic and their retro filters, for example) and equipment (fish eye lenses, to name one) that manipulate images. What they fail to acknowledge–or what they never knew– is that even the most vaunted photographers have always trucked in sleight of hand tricks.
If you’ve ever read Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” or the painfully tedious but interesting “Believing is Seeing” by Errol Morris, then you’ll know that photography has involved far more subjectivities than most viewers of the printed or framed photo might think; as Sontag said, “Photography is… a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself.” For one thing, what the photographer frames in a larger scene–what he or she deems as “important” or compositionally interesting– is its own kind of manipulation.
This isn’t the kind of manipulation that is the principal concern of “Faking It”; the photographs that were curated so perfectly for this show are really, truly, and concretely manipulated. There are three images that, a month after seeing the show, remain in my mind as particularly potent examples of the ways in which photos have been mechanically, technically altered. There’s Ansel Adams’s addition of clouds to create mood; a variety of photographers’ images of subjects “holding” their own “severed” heads (see, Victorians DID have a sense of humor!); and the literal deletion–both in photos and in life–of Hitler’s right-hand men who, over time, became victims of his wrath.
Ultimately, one of the most interesting take-aways of the exhibit was how uninteresting the contemporary manipulated photos were (these are exhibited in a second hall under the title “After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age”) compared to the images from the pre-Photoshop days. Modern technology hasn’t ruined photography after all!
But there I go, glorifying the past….
If you have a chance, see this exhibit. It’s a good one.
^Woody Allen, you get a pass here.