'Faking It': Old-School Photo Trickery at the Met

3 minute read

With all due respect to the Who, we will get fooled again. That’s what humans do. At one time or another, we suspend disbelief about virtually everything. And why not? As social creatures, we’re wired to trust others.

But what about when we know, with absolute certainty, that someone’s trying to put one over on us and rather than resisting, we embrace it? What does it say about the power of denial, not to mention our thirst for entertainment, when we actively seek out and celebrate artfully executed trickery?

A new show at the Met, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, shines a thoughtful light on the work of men and women who, throughout the history of the medium, have playfully (and, occasionally, with more sinister motives) doctored their own and others’ images. Not content with merely presenting the works themselves, though, Faking It also holds up something of a funhouse mirror to the viewer’s preconceptions of what photography really is—and what it means.

After all, if photographers, printers and others involved in the craft have for centuries been altering the “reality” of what the camera captures—as, of course, they always have, and always will—then where is the hard, bright line between, say, a masterwork of photojournalism tweaked and perfected in the dark room and a photo adroitly doctored to make a political point? Professional photo editors might be able to say, with absolute sincerity, “That hard, bright line exists here.” But for the casual observer, the lay viewer, that distinction might feel like little more than an academic splitting of hairs; what matters is that a picture elicits a response—and with few exceptions, the images in Faking It do just that.

More than a few pictures in the show are memorable for the very reason that they are so obviously, to our contemporary eyes, manufactured. A French artist’s photo made to look like that of a man juggling his own head (slide 8 in the gallery above) might have stunned people in the 1880s; today, not so much—even if we can appreciate the deliberate effort and even the intent that went into creating it. An image of two Soviet premiers seated together, meanwhile, is so clearly an (altered) attempt to consecrate the mass-murdering Stalin as the rightful successor of Lenin that the picture would be comical if we didn’t have such a dreadful understanding of how brutal Stalin’s decades-long reign really was.

Other photos strike a chord for the simple reason that they are, by any measure, beautiful. The dream-like “Orpheus Scene” (1907) by the early fine-art photographer F. Holland Day is so wonderfully moody that, at first glance, it might be the handiwork of the great French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon.

In the end, perhaps the pleasure we take in these pictures derives not from our sophisticated, skeptical, eminently modern sensibility in the age of Instagram, Pixelmator and the rest, but instead can be traced to a simpler, far more elemental source: our capacity, and our longing, for wonder.

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from Oct. 11, 2012 through Jan. 27, 2013.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

Room with Eye, 1930 Maurice Tabard (French, 1897-1984)Maurice Tabard/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Vision (Orpheus Scene), 1907 F. Holland Day (American, 1864-1933)F. Holland Day/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Two-Headed Man, 1855 Unidentified American artist
Dream No. 1: Electric Appliances for the Home, 1948 Grete Stern (Argentinian, born Germany, 1904-1999) Grete Stern
Untitled [Trees Floating Over Mountains and Lake], 1969 Jerry N. Uelsmann (American, born 1934) Jerry N. Uelsmann
Sealed Power Piston Rings, 1934 John Paul Pennebaker (American, active 1930s)John Paul Pennebaker/ Baker Library, Harvard University
Lenin and Stalin in Gorki, 1922 Unidentified Russian artistThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Man Juggling His Own Head, 1880 Unidentified French artistThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Red Stripe Kitchen, 1967-72, printed early 1990s Martha Rosler (American)Martha Rosler/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders , ca. 1930 Unidentified American artistHenry Peach Robinson/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as Artist and Model, 1900 Maurice Guibert (French, 1856-1913) Maurice Guibert/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Hearst Over the People, 1939 Barbara Morgan (American, 1900-1992)Barbara Morgan/The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

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