Manipulating Photography Before Photoshop Came Along

girl with cat nose and cat eyes
Io + gatto (Cat + I), 1932 (Wanda Wulz)

In the 2011 romantic-comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, Ryan Gosling’s Jacob takes off his shirt at Hannah (Emma Stone)’s request. Hannah exclaims, “BLEEP! Seriously? It’s like you’re photoshopped!”

Photoshop was first used as a noun but has now evolved into both a verb and an adjective. The word itself pertains to the act of manipulating pictures to look aesthetically pleasing or sometimes, to fool people. Remember Kim Kardashian’s  infamous airbrushed spread?

A lot of people think the practice of Photoshopping came to be at the rise of computers and editing software. However, contrary to popular belief, the practice of manipulating photographs has been around longer than that. The methods for doing so are on opposite ends of the spectrum if you’re going to compare before and now, but the intention is the same.

Curious already? Check out The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City’s latest captivating project. The Met is currently exhibiting around 200 photo manipulations of old school collage-making, cutting, pasting and coloring at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The gallery’s pieces range from the mid-1800s to the 90s, all before the birth of today’s digital age. Apparently, photo manipulation has been used largely in Victorian “trick” photography and even in a couple of propagandist work similar to the legendary series of Joseph Stalin’s photos during his time in the Soviet Union.

several clones of one person in photo
Red Cap Snow Shoe Club, Halifax, Nova Scotia, circa 1888, collage of albumen prints with applied media (Wm. Notman and Son, Montreal, Eugene L’Africain, William Notman)

The door opening to the exhibit so aptly named Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop is a time-travel exploration experience of the history of photography and its seemingly scheming aspect.

There was no software to help people put together landscapes and portraits so what most creative photographers did was to put together negatives of different subjects to create the perfect photograph when they could not put two and two together. This was a method done by one French Gustave Le Gray in the 19th century.

people crowding around vintage car
Advertisement for Texaco Inc., 1957 (Ralph Bartholomew Jr.)

Just like today, many photographers from before manipulated pictures to correct certain errors, whether they were caused by machine or human. If you’ve dropped by the exhibition, you’ll read that plenty of the early ‘manually photoshopped’ images were efforts to compensate for the technical limitations and color troubles of photography at the time.

The exhibit will be on display until the 5th of May, 2013. There will be another one at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston from July to October 2013 as well.

Patricia Ramos

Patricia Ramos

I am a freelance photographer who is no stranger to smudged lenses, long hours in front of the computer, heavy camera bags (and the back aches that ensued) and missing lens caps. If you know what I'm talking about, you probably have as much love and passion for photography as I do.