Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

October 11, 2012–January 27, 2013

Picture Perfect


Carleton E. Watkins (American, 1829–1916). Left: Cape Horn, Columbia River, Oregon, 1867. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 (2005.100.493). Right: Cape Horn, Columbia River, Oregon, 1867; printed 1880–90. George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester

Many of the earliest manipulated photographs were attempts to compensate for the new medium's technical limitations—specifically, its inability to depict the world as it appears to the naked eye. When photography was introduced in 1839, its admirers wondered how a medium that could render forms and textures with such exquisite detail could fail to register the ever-present element of color. Eager to please potential customers, photographers resorted to manual intervention, enlivening their pictures with powdered pigment, watercolor, and oil paint.

Early photography was color-blind in other ways as well. In the nineteenth century, photographic emulsions were much more sensitive to blue and violet light than to other colors on the spectrum, which meant that blue skies almost always appeared blotchy and overexposed. To overcome the problem, many landscape photographers would make two separate negatives—one exposed for the land, the other for the sky—and print them together on a single sheet of paper.

The group portrait presented other challenges. Exposure times were long, and someone in a large group would almost inevitably move or adopt an awkward expression. Busy clients might even fail to show up for the portrait session. To ensure good results, some photographers posed each individual separately in the studio then pasted the figures into the composition one at a time. Postcard publishers adopted similar techniques to transform austere landscape photographs into "picture perfect" views, altering the topography of the land with scissors and paste.

Faking It App

Can you spot which photos are fake? Put your eyes to the test in this free iPad app, available in the iTunes Store.