Today, any amateur can alter, rearrange and fix a photograph, just by retouching it in Photoshop. Gone are the days when pictures were taken for granted as factual or truthful, and photo manipulation was an obscure art form practiced behind closed darkroom doors.
“Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” brings these predigital experiments of photographic intervention into the light, with more than 200 examples ranging from hand-tinted daguerreotypes circa 1850 to Martha Rosler’s political photomontages from the late 1960s and early ’70s. In between, there are masterpieces, such as Gustave Le Gray’s Seascape, made by combining sea and sky in two separate exposures, and Surrealist Herbert Bayer’s 1932 Lonely Metropolitan, the result of photographing a collage. There are also instances of propaganda erasing enemies of the state, and trick photography, with its penchant for giant watermelons, ghostly apparitions and headless heroines.
Postmodernism preceded Photoshop, and it’s great to be reminded of how much artists like Jerry Uelsmann and Frank Majore achieved without the aid of computers. Particularly eerie are the retouched classics by Kathy Grove that seamlessly eliminate the women from works by Brassaï and Kertész. These pictures are magical and make you marvel at the artists’ mastery of low-tech special effects. That element is missing from “After Photoshop,” an addendum to this show, which features digital images that mess with reality, but mostly without the degree of creativity found in the historic works on view.—Barbara Pollack