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Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

October 11, 2012–January 27, 2013

Pictures in Print

John Paul Pennebaker (American, active 1903–1953). Sealed Power Piston Rings, 1933. 1934 Art and Industry Exhibition Photograph Collection, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School, Boston, Mass. © John Paul Pennebaker

With the perfection of halftone printing in the 1890s, newspapers and magazines began publishing photographs on a regular basis. Photojournalism was still in its infancy, however, and standards of veracity were in flux. Were news photographs supposed to be strictly factual eyewitness reports, or could they be modified and embellished after the fact, like the drawings by newspaper sketch artists?

News editors, who had long relied on hand-drawn illustrations, soon discovered that photography was subject to a variety of irksome limitations, the most fundamental of which was the requirement that the cameraman be present at a scene. Throughout the twentieth century, newspaper photographs were routinely altered, improved, and sometimes fabricated in their entirety to depict events that could not be photographed because conditions made cameras unusable or unwelcome.

By the 1930s photography had become the medium of choice in print advertising. Art directors embraced the camera's capacity to produce images that not only mirrored reality but also shaped it to reflect consumers' desires. Like advertisements, fashion and magazine photographs were subject to creative manipulation at every stage of the process, from storyboard to post-production. The stakes were highest on magazine covers, where photography and text were combined into a posterlike advertisement for the magazine itself.