Image alteration – or “retouching” – has transcended the pages of glossy magazines to become a political issue. Earlier this year protesters gathered at Teen Vogue’s New York City headquarters to demand more realistic images of young women in the media, while controversy surrounded September’s US Vogue cover featuring Lady Gaga when a video of the shoot showed her looking considerably less svelte than in the published picture. And last year the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency banned a L’Oréal advert in which Julia Roberts’ airbrushed perfection was deemed misleading.
But as a new show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art proves, such alterations are not exclusive to the computer age. As long as people has been making images, they have also been amending them.
Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop pulls together some 200 images, all tweaked with a variety of techniques by photographers from the 1840s until 1990, when Adobe Systems introduced its digital editing program. Mia Fineman, the show’s curator, explains: “The show is intended to demonstrate that all the things we associate with digitally manipulated imagery today have been part of photography’s history since the beginning. When people complain about models being turned into skeletons through Photoshop, I feel they need to see how incredibly ubiquitous this has always been.” (Adobe is a sponsor of the show but, says Fineman, had no say in its content.)
As if to underline that sentiment, a quote from a 1903 essay by US photographer Edward Steichen is painted above one of the show’s walls: “Every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible.”
The show includes some standout magazine images. In Erwin Blumenfeld’s January 1950 Vogue cover, a model’s face is reduced to a single made-up eye, pointed eyebrow, bold red lip and black beauty mark. In another, Richard Avedon attaches five Audrey Hepburn heads into one multi-tentacled, fantastic image.
“Retouched magazine imagery was always a huge part of magazine illustration,” says Fineman. “Part of a magazine has to do with a certain suspension of disbelief: they’re trying to create a world that’s more perfect than the world we live in.”
The show’s strength is how it contextualises this development, beginning in the mid-19th century when photographers used basic hand techniques to alter images, primarily by applying colour to black and white. In some cases, such as an anonymous portrait of a soldier, the technique was used to give the picture a painterly quality; in others, such as “Woman with Umbrella in Rain” by Raimund von Stillfried, details such as a geisha’s kimono lining and crimson lipstick come alive with the additions. Like with digital manipulations, the effect is to guide the eye to specific details, and manipulate the viewer.
Indeed, says Fineman, “Photography has a reputation as a truthful and objective medium and that reputation makes it irresistible for people who want to convey a message.”
In this vein, a selection of politically themed pieces range from the satirical – a 1968 image by Weegee that adds a Pinocchio-style nose to Lyndon B Johnson’s face – to the more ominous: a seemingly untouched photo of German POWS in Stalingrad that is actually two negatives superimposed in a single print to create the impression of a mass of captives streaming across the countryside. Then there’s the photograph of Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl from which Joseph Goebbels was removed to thwart rumours of an affair with the Triumph of the Will director.
Sometimes the retouching itself offers the commentary, as in a series of three photographs by Kathy Grove based on classic Brassai, Kertész and Man Ray images – the woman in each photograph has been removed as a comment about objectification. Grove, who also works as a professional retoucher for companies such as Estée Lauder and Revlon, says: “Photography is a way of seeing the world. Just about everything you see has been altered in some way.” With photography, like Magritte’s painting, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”
‘Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until January 27 2013; www.metmuseum.org