In the fall of 2012, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened “the first major exhibition devoted to history of manipulated photography before digital age”. It featured around 200 images created between the 1840s and 1990s and it explored the notion of photo manipulation from photography’s earliest ages to the time it all went to another level with the arrival of computers. The show demonstrated the creative ways in which the pioneers of photography and their successors played with the medium using tools with very limited possibilities. It is no secret that the “real” and “faked” photography always existed in two parallel dimensions, walking hand in hand through time and evolving with the world.
With its very first image, photography as an art form claimed to be the closest interpreter of reality the world has seen to that point. Deprived of the artist’s subjectivity and imagination, it was to capture things just the way they are, through a lens and onto the filmstrip. Needless to say the idea was abandoned almost immediately after the first experiments, but it was also declared invalid philosophically-wise, because a piece of the world framed by a photograph was chosen by its author, so it is, in fact, only their version of reality; not to mention it was already diverging from a faithful copy by being in black and white.
Leaving that debate aside, photo manipulation was and is used in different ways for different reasons. Like in the past, it served great purpose in politics, news and entertainment, while today it is widely accepted as an art form and it successfully sells products. Before the digital era, photographers explored various techniques in the dark room to make their work according to a vision or request: there was the double or multiple exposure, manual montage of many photographs or its elements into one, airbrushing and retouching the negative or the prints, applying paint or ink directly onto photographic paper, scratching the surface or using alternative analogue printing processes. Adding or removing people from images was a frequent practice during the wars, where politicians would modify them for propaganda aims. The altering could also be done “on sight”: many photographs were staged, and the scenery and models were directed towards the photographer’s idea of the image, in order to improve storytelling or to boost impact. It was no surprise to see a photographer move dead bodies on a battlefield, so they could fit into the photo better, or that he instructed his subjects on how to move. The latter was believed to be the case in Robert Capa’s most famous photograph, of a soldier allegedly being killed in Spain.
Today, the question of photoshopped pictures tackles a whole new category of issues. With the invention of a new job called “the photoshop expert” and the fact that, with present softwares, every single pixel can and is prone to a complete transformation, like the already fine line between fact and fiction is getting even thinner. The editing is being used by default, especially in the fields of fashion, beauty and advertising photography. However, in these cases it is “justified”, as their aim is to sell products, so the exaggeration and intentional beautification practically became what people want to see. And while it surely still requires elaborated photographic talent, it also demands great photoshopping skills.
The two burning topics that emerged from the extensive presence of manipulated images deal with the influence they have on the contemporary society. The way a human body and its features is presented through magazines, campaigns and the digital media easily became a lie that the mass audience embraced as the ideal we strive to be. The ongoing debates condemn the images that contribute to self-esteem issues in both men and women and call for a likely more realistic idea that people can relate to. Some governments also adopted the laws that ban “too airbrushed” images that alter reality to the point where the public is completely mislead to believe they’re true.
A similar scenario is happening with photojournalism. In the past 30 years, there were several cases where big newspaper agencies had to fire photographers and pull their work for presenting false imagery as facts. The known cases of the National Geography, where the Egyptian pyramids were manipulated into being closer together so they can fit into a vertical cover, or the composed image featured in the Los Angeles Times from the war in Iraq led to the introduction of strict terms and rules for photo reporters. The very limited use of only basic Photoshop tools aims to make photographs account for the news they accompany and to preserve the main purpose of journalism: to report facts.
Nevertheless, photo manipulation is there, and it’s everywhere - whether it’s an Instagram filter, a rejuvenation via healing tool or a hamburger too-good-to-be-true, it is clear that in photography, it has different goals and that it mostly is harmless. It is also to be said that, with the fast evolution of graphic and 3D computer programs, professionals might not even need photography anymore to obtain the “lie”. The rest of it is probably safe, as long as there are true camera lovers and cellphones.
Featured image: Marc Da Cunha Lopes - Beaux Arts Magazine