Thursday, November 8, 2012

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

Wanda Wulz, Italian, 1903-1984, Gelatine silver print, 1932

If you use Photoshop or Instagram or manipulate images in any way, then Faking It is a must-have. Faking It is a 280 page hardbound catalog to accompany an exhibition at the Met that runs through the end of January. The first major exhibition to deal with manipulated photography before the digital age, Faking It gives some much needed historical grounding to practices that many people seem to think were invented by Adobe. To quote the last lines of the well researched catalog:
The tradition of photographic manipulation that began in the 1840s is bound to continue far into the future. Let us follow it armed with a truer picture of photography's past. (203)
One of the things I love most about the book is that it leaves you well armed with historical knowledge. This is no lazy quick "scholarly essay" intro followed by a bunch of images with captions. Mia Fineman's work represents an important resource with seven chapters that develop the theme of photo manipulation in a variety of manifestations including pictorialism, politics, spirit photography, vernacular novelty photography, journalism, surrealism, and the move toward Photoshop. Having once spent six years working as a guest curator, I have come to respect the delicate balancing act of museum curators and educators who must produce works of scholarly integrity that can also appeal to groups of school children. 

Good exhibition catalogs tend to shy away from academic jargon (thank heavens!) as well as from controversial academic debates (a "safe" choice). In the spectrum from pure description to theory-heavy analysis, museum catalogs tend to adopt a conservative stance. I didn't come away from reading the catalog with a strong sense of a central thesis. Instead, I enjoyed a content-rich experience that makes me want to revisit the material and see where it leads my own research. There were so many interesting moments/facts/quotes that I have vowed to go back and reread the whole thing, next time taking notes.

Why should you buy it? Context.You probably already have strong opinion about Instagram and Photoshop, but "armed with a truer picture of photography's past" you will be able to think about and discuss debates on photography with more nuance. Context always results in better thinking, and I believe, in better art.

To use a literary example, we can look at 19th-century French romanticism and find themes of unattainable love, a troubled relationship with time and the past, and a highly subjective relation to nature. If you know the context of the French political climate of the  time, you can appreciate how those themes relate to the loss of "old regime" beliefs in transcendent systems of government and religion, etc.  If you strip romantic themes from their historical context instead of Les Mis√©rables you end up with Twilight. In photography, more context could improve/add depth not just to your understanding of photography, but also to your own aesthetic decisions.

I can't imagine that a person could read Faking It and not be inspired. Even if you're not a big collector of photo books, I highly recommend that you buy this one.