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?”