Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

October 11, 2012–January 27, 2013

Politics and Persuasion


Unidentified Russian artist. Left: Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin, and Nikolay Yezhov on the Moscow-Volga Canal, Moscow, 1937; printed later. Right: Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Joseph Stalin on the Moscow-Volga Canal, Moscow, 1937; David King Collection, London

Photography's reputation for factual objectivity has always made it a powerful tool for propaganda. The photographs in this section of the exhibition were manipulated—by the photographers themselves or by other interested parties—for a variety of political and ideological ends: to sway public opinion, to foster patriotism, to advance racial ideologies, to support or protest totalitarian regimes. The falsification of photographs was notoriously widespread in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, but the temptation to "rectify" photographic documents has proved irresistible to modern demagogues of all stripes.

In another tradition of photographic propaganda, the manipulation of images is blatantly rhetorical rather than deceptive. Before and during World War II, artists such as John Heartfield and Alexandr Zhitomirsky drew on the pictorial traditions of caricature and political cartooning to create anti-Nazi photomontages with an incisive satirical edge.

The technique of composite portraiture, in which several individual portraits are merged into a single generic face, has been used to promote positions across the ideological spectrum. The English polymath Francis Galton devised the technique in the 1870s to support his theory of eugenics—the now-discredited science of improving the human species through selective breeding—but it was later adopted for a variety of purposes, from revealing the face of the average Harvard student to promoting progressive social reform.

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.