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?"
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Once again, you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
If you run a Google search on the term grumpy cat, you'll find endless variations upon a single photograph of a scowling feline. People have taken that one shot and added text, changed the background, superimposed the kitty's face onto people. It's the latest Internet meme to fill up inboxes everywhere. We're in a golden age of manipulated photography. But as a traveling exhibit shows us, it's been here all along.
DIANE WAGGONER: This is sort of an alternative history of the medium to show that - really from the very inception of photography - all kinds of manipulations have been done.
LYDEN: Diane Waggoner is the associate curator of photography at Washington D.C.'s National Gallery of Art. And I joined her this past week to get a look at an exhibit down from New York's Metropolitan Museum called "Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop." Photography was introduced to the world in 1839. And by 1850, shots were already being altered.
WAGGONER: We're looking at a picture of a young girl. She's wearing an off-the-shoulder, beautiful gown. And they've painted her cheeks and lips and...
LYDEN: Actually, it looks pretty modern.
WAGGONER: Exactly. Well - and so what they've done is they've hand-tinted it not only to sort of give her cheeks this lovely blush and give her some color but also, they probably smoothed away a few wrinkles, you know, made her look as beautiful as she could be. This was a typical practice already from the very beginning.
LYDEN: So even then, a model would be what we would today call airbrushed.
LYDEN: More beautification. Some photographers took liberties with their shots to get around the medium's limitations of the time. French photographer Gustave Le Gray found that with his landscape portraits, it was tough to get the clouds and the sky to look as solid as the land. So when he finally got a bold, rambunctious shot of the clouds, he just clipped it out, saved it and reused it. Why not?
Diane Waggoner points out two different photographs of two different beaches with identical clouds overhead.
WAGGONER: I mean, that would've been typical. They would've kept a stock of cloud formations on hand. In fact, it's very likely that the cloud formation was taken in another place.
LYDEN: Right. And nobody minded because you were buying a landscape portrait, really. Yeah.
WAGGONER: Right. Well, the understanding was that this kind of manipulation was done in order to make the image look more like you saw in real life, which there would've been a desire for it.
LYDEN: And then, of course, we come to the advent of home photography. If you think you've seen it all on Facebook, wait for 19th century humor.
WAGGONER: With the introduction of the snapshot camera by Kodak in 1888, suddenly, photography begins to be accessible to amateurs. And, of course, people wanted to do fun things with their cameras. And one of the kind of tropes that you see coming up around that time is images of people with their own heads, images of decapitation and beheading.
LYDEN: Wow, there's a whole collection here.
WAGGONER: And there's a whole - a number of examples here. You know, here's a man juggling several shots of his own head.
LYDEN: Of his own head.
WAGGONER: This man's holding his own head on a platter. This man's just cut his own head off. And, of course, they painted in red on the knife to show the blood.
LYDEN: Oh, my goodness. We are endlessly macabre as a species.
And our macabre doesn't end there because we moved next to a room labeled Politics and Persuasion. This is where photography gets really ethically questionable. I'm drawn toward a fascinating, if chilling, series of shots from Leningrad, 1926.
WAGGONER: The original photograph is of Stalin with four other party officials. That's Stalin there, just the second from the left, and in the middle is a man named Sergei Kirov.
LYDEN: But as you look down the wall, four versions of the photograph have been retouched. Each time, someone is eliminated from Stalin's inner circle like Nikolai Antipov.
WAGGONER: He was executed. And he, of course, disappears from the picture.
LYDEN: As was another who used to be at Stalin's side. And in the final photo, only Stalin and Sergei Kirov remain.
WAGGONER: Kirov had actually already been killed. Although his murder was orchestrated by Stalin, he was held up sort of as a martyr. So he remained in the picture while others fell off.
LYDEN: The entire exhibit gives the viewer a tremendous sense of the photographer's consciousness behind the camera of hands long gone but cleverly and sometimes diabolically or lovingly altering reality.
WAGGONER: It's very germane to our own time because now with Photoshop being so widespread, there's such an easy understanding of what you can do to photographs. In fact, you know, our sort of understanding of photography has changed with the advent of Photoshop. You know, we don't necessarily believe that every photograph you see is truthful. So this seemed a very timely exhibition to go back and explore that aspect throughout the history of the medium.
LYDEN: Diane Waggoner curates the exhibit "Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop." It runs through May 5 at Washington, D.C.'s, National Gallery of Art and then goes on to Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.