Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

October 11, 2012–January 27, 2013

Novelties and Amusements

George B. Cornish (American, 1876–1946). A Car Load of Texas Corn, ca. 1910. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Charles Isaacs and Carol Nigro, 2007 (2007.460.15)

The genre of trick photography was born in the studios and darkrooms of professional photographers in the late 1850s. To supplement their day-to-day business, many commercial portrait studios offered an assortment of counterfactual novelties: images of tiny men in stoppered glass bottles, spirit photographs that reunited clients with ghostly images of their deceased relatives, and "polypose" pictures, in which individuals appear to consort with their own doubles. By the 1890s trick photography had grown into a widespread fad among darkroom hobbyists, who picked up the latest techniques from popular science magazines and photography journals.

Unidentified artist. Published by Allain de Torbéchet et Cie. Man Juggling His Own Head, ca. 1880. Collection of Christophe Goeury

Trick photographs work much like magic tricks: they generate a pleasurable incongruity between what the eye sees and what the mind knows. In fact, turn-of-the-century photographers and stage magicians shared many spooky motifs—such as ghosts and mock decapitations—which elicited from viewers a similar mixture of wonder, skepticism, and curiosity about the artistry behind the illusions.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, trick photography began to be commercialized and mass-produced in a new and distinctly modern form: the picture postcard. While European postcard publishers turned out fantasy cards featuring visions of erotic love and longing, their American counterparts adapted the frontier tradition of the "tall tale," crafting images of colossal rabbits, leviathan fish, and gigantic ears of corn.