fb-pixel Skip to main content

The surprisingly old art of photo fakery

We’ve been doctoring pictures as long as we’ve been taking them.

An unidentified artist’s trick photo of a man holding up 11 men in formation, circa 1930.George Eastman House collection

Everywhere you look, the changes are there, hiding in plain sight. That sunset, brighter than life. That portrait with a blemish removed, or even a person. Sometimes you can tell right away that a photograph’s been altered. Very often, you have no idea.

As photography goes completely digital, pictures of all kinds are being dramatically enhanced, even transformed, with easy-to-use post-production software. Websites regularly expose the fakery of fashion shoots (which are remade pixel by pixel, until beautiful people look impossibly so), but it’s not just supermodels. Nowadays even supposedly casual shots are filtered through Hipstamatic before they’re posted on Facebook.


Photojournalistic images require special vigilance. Photos are supposed to offer a quick path to documentary truth, but following several instances where manipulated pictures appeared in widely circulated newspapers—to save face, a fourth missile was added to an Iranian test launch; to make him seem more important, Hosni Mubarak was cut-and-pasted to the front of a pack of world leaders—we’re reminded that we have to review photographic evidence of all kinds with a certain skepticism. Was it Photoshopped?

Today this kind of manipulation is so closely associated with the rise of digital cameras and desktop publishing that it almost seems a peculiarity of the computer age. Of course, we know that dictatorships were already airbrushing history back in the 1930s, but few people realize just how longstanding and pervasive the practice really is. As “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop”—an important new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accompanied by curator Mia Fineman’s illuminating book of the same title from Yale University Press—shows us, the habit of aggressively adjusting photographs is actually an activity dating back to photography’s earliest days, and one that exposes a central question about the truth or artifice of the medium.

One might expect this story to unfold solely in moral terms, as a cautionary tale of “straight” vs. “doctored” pictures. But what this intricate and much ignored history reveals instead is just how subtle, and how malleable, photography’s relationship to truth has always been. Though often performed in secret, the changes made to photos weren’t necessarily intended to deceive. Photographers used these so-called tricks to augment the power of this ever-evolving medium, and sometimes to critique it—pushing photography to become more detailed, more beautiful, more self-reflecting, more flexible, and often, strange as it may sound, more true.



We all know the feeling: This picture would be perfect, if I could just change one little thing. So it’s no surprise that shortly after the miracle of photography was revealed, people wanted to make adjustments.

In 1846, just five years after his friend William Henry Fox Talbot patented his revolutionary calotype (which produced multiple prints from a single negative), the enterprising Calvert Richard Jones produced the first known example of a photographic fake. It’s hard to know whether it was Jones himself or an assistant who wielded the fateful brush, but whoever was processing a quaint image of some Capuchin friars in Malta decided to make a little change. The poor monk in the middle was apparently spoiling the composition, so he was removed—transformed into white sky, simply and without a trace, by a few dabs of India ink—before the revised image was printed and probably sold as a souvenir. One doubts that Jones, or whoever it was, thought much about it in historical or ethical terms, but there it was: an amendment to the record, for beauty’s sake.


Many of the earliest photographic manipulations had to do with the initial limitations of the form. Nature photographers especially were vexed by the camera’s inability to register different amounts of light in one image; either the sky would be too bright and washed out, or the landscape too dark. The simple fix in this case was to take two pictures at different settings and put them together when you printed. (You could even pair one particularly dramatic cloudscape with different seascapes, as Gustave Le Grey did on several occasions.) With group portraits, similarly, it was difficult to get everyone looking good in the same shot. Sometimes, you couldn’t even get everyone in one place at the same time. General Francis Preston Blair Jr. has a scheduling conflict with Sherman’s other men? No matter; combine the negatives and print the montage. What about a portrait with a seated figure in front and a detailed, in-focus view of Brattle Street Church out the window? Again: two negatives!

Bolstered by books like Henry Peach Robinson’s influential “Pictorial Effect in Photography,” published in 1869, many 19th-century photographers aspired to believability, not some notion of documentary truth. So the astonishing initial invention of photography was augmented by many smaller miracles as an extremely motley crew (of portraitists, journalists, charlatans, propagandists, allegorists, social scientists, advertisers, and satirists) began building photographic images with techniques that went way beyond the fine adjustments of tone we associate with the craft of the darkroom. By painting over, layering, and combining negatives, they achieved a vast array of effects serving ends as different as the images themselves, helping push the nascent medium into important new territories.


Postcards, for example, could follow a maximalist logic: Using different negatives, one could literally move mountains and squeeze several amazing views together into one breathtaking shot. Projects that aspired to the visual and symbolic richness of the popular salon paintings of the era employed especially complex tricks, with each section shot multiple times and puzzled together later for maximum plausibility.

Historical events could be similarly concocted. In 1902, Levin Corbin Handy—nephew and apprentice of the famous Civil War photographer Matthew Brady—printed a memorable picture called “General Ulysses Grant at City Point,” which shows the stern-faced leader on horseback at Union headquarters, in front of an encampment of captured Confederate soldiers. The composition is impressive (and visually convincing) until you realize that none of the soldiers pictured seem to notice the high-ranking general in their midst. Grant obviously would have been at this location many times, but this image is a Frankenstein: A portrait taken in Cold Harbor, Va., supplies Grant’s head, while his body and horse actually belong to General Alexander McDowell McCook; this equestrian collage was then propped in front of the tents and—voilà!—the picture makes history.


Remarkably, the entire first century of news photography regularly involved similarly inventive procedures. Photography’s detail and precision were of immediate use to journalism, but the halftone process (which could print pictures together with text) wasn’t developed until the end of the 1800s, so for the first few decades, photographs were used simply as a source for the wood engravings that would actually see mass circulation. These hand-cut illustrations would run with captions proclaiming “Photographed by…” even when they had been significantly altered from the original.


The introduction of the more mechanical halftone process hardly put an end to these illustrational tendencies. In fact, preparing a photograph to be printed in this way involved a whole series of manual interventions: The original negative would be touched up, and then when the photo was printed, it would be further “worked up”—even if this meant repainting and arranging the content. For a Victorian-era journalistic culture used to hand-drawn images, it wasn’t exactly scandalous to stage, collage, or retouch the elements of a photograph that would accompany an article as an “actual scene.” Perhaps more surprising is the fact that these practices would continue, albeit in more refined forms, well into the 1960s.

We take it as a given, but the strict rule of documentary photography—that a print should proceed directly and purely from the single moment a camera opens its lens—had to be introduced to a medium in which manipulation had become almost second nature. In clear opposition to “pictorialism”—the school of early photography that encouraged changing negatives to emulate the beauty of paintings—the modernist ideal of “straight photography” emerged in the early part of the 20th century. Photographers like Alfred Steiglitz, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston—among many, many others—practiced a style that was overtly objective, documentary, and unadulterated. Following a core group known as f.64, a new breed of photographers began choosing the smallest aperture on the shutter to get details throughout their pictures and shunned enlargers in favor of contact prints, which provided a direct, to-scale record of the negative.

But if the ethic of “straight photography” was clear—and influential—its reality was more complex. Paul Strand, for example, wasn’t above painting out a figure that cluttered the composition in his 1915 picture “City Hall Park.” (He later declared, “You can do anything in photography if you can get away with it.”) One of Ansel Adams’s most iconic images, “Moonrise,” snapped in the late afternoon in 1941, was given its moody contrast via aggressive darkroom chemistry six years after the fact. Even the iconic black borders on Richard Avedon’s trademark full-frame prints—included as a sign the picture hadn’t been altered—were faked with paint if cutting the negative helped the composition.

“Hearst over the People,” a collage photo by Barbara Morgan, 1939.The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Still, these “straight” ideals went a long way toward establishing our notion that the camera doesn’t lie. As technology improved and viewers got used to the medium, photography came to be seen as a uniquely dependable record of what really happened. Of course, the more people began to accept and rely on the veracity of photography, the more it could be used to deceive them. Totalitarian exploits in this regard are well known: People were removed from photographs just as ruthlessly as they were removed from life. If it was inconvenient for someone to be seen at a garden party with Hitler or on a canal-side stroll with ­Stalin, the photographic record would jump to attention. In the popular press, crowds of soldiers or prisoners or workers miraculously doubled their ranks through darkroom tricks, giving propagandistic stories that extra punch. If politicians and news outlets abused the medium with impunity, their critics regularly used their own techniques against them, as in John Heartfield’s highly influential series of cut-up photos (which served back Nazi propaganda in bitingly inverted terms) or in Barbara Morgan’s “Hearst Over the People,” which memorably depicts the media mogul as a gigantic, grinning octopus floating horribly over a May Day crowd.


Satirical pictures like these point to the crucial moral distinction between manipulating a photograph and manipulating an audience. Within art photography, photographs have often been reworked to highlight the artifice of supposedly “straight” pictures, to powerful effect. In Martha Rosler’s famous series, “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home,” for example, she carefully interrupted quaint images from women’s magazines with disturbing details from Vietnam. Kathy Grove, who mastered the art of omission in her day job as a professional photo retoucher, applied this skill hauntingly in “The Other Series,” where female subjects were painstakingly removed—you could say liberated—from iconic pictures taken by men. Other artists took preexisting traditions of manipulation to humorous and unmanipulative ends: Boris Mikhailov’s garishly hand-colored pictures of parades and banners pushed Soviet-era techniques to their absurd conclusion, while Jim Shaw’s heavily reworked photos turned ordinary people into tentacled aliens, fusing two genres of evidentiary photography—the “before-and-after” and the “UFO sighting”—into a well-deserved spoof of both.

Just like today’s viral memes, many pre-digital fakes were made just for the fun of it. Corn cobs as big as trucks, magically severed heads, people riding butterflies into the clouds—these images weren’t meant to fool anyone, much less raise serious epistemological questions. If some charlatans convinced people their double exposures registered actual ghosts, most photographic magic was decidedly benign: People were “shrunk” into tiny jars, turned into marble statues, or pictured next to their own miraculous doubles. Momentary astonishment, rather than real deception, was the overriding goal.

The truth is, great photography relies on all kinds of tricks to capture reality, and this “magic” has been part of photography from the start. Whether it occurs through chance and skill at the moment the shutter opens, or whether it comes afterwards, through sleight-of-hand and painstaking revisions, it’s up to us to measure the result carefully, both with our mind and with our eyes. Today, we are all photographers, and as we endlessly filter and tweak and play with images, we should remember what the history of this manipulation tells us: There is beauty in truth, of course, but there is also delight in being made to wonder.

Dushko Petrovich, a painter and critic, teaches at The Rhode Island School of Design and is a founding editor of Paper Monument.