Trick or Truth?

J. Hoberman in the New York Review of Books:

Lampshade_jpg_470x2277_q85“Every photograph is a fake from start to finish,” the photographer Edward Steichen asserted in the first issue of Camera Work in 1903. In what amounts to a backhanded defense of photography as art, Steichen explained that “a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph” was “practically impossible.” A year later, he would print The Pond-Moonrise—a sylvan pond contemplated through a heavy curtain of atmosphere, realized through layers of pigment, the application of a blue wash, and an enhanced (or introduced) slice of lunar radiance.

Is photography a way of documenting the world that has an inherent “truth-claim” on the real? Or is it, as Steichen suggested, essentially graphic, a technique for creating a certain kind of image? “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” an exhibition now up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (later traveling to the National Gallery and Houston’s Museum of Fine Art), makes a vigorous case for understanding the medium as Steichen did. The argument is amplified in the accompanying catalogue written by curator Mia Fineman, who, in effect, proposes a new truth-claim of her own: “Photography’s veracity has less to do with essential qualities of the medium than with what people think and say about it.”

According to Fineman, photography has been artificially enhanced almost from its advent in 1839. “Especially in the early days of the medium, producing a realistic-looking photograph often required a healthy dose of artful trickery,” she writes. Moreover, the familiar insistence on photographic objectivity is itself something that derives from the early twentieth-century emergence of photojournalism and social documentary—and also, we might add, of motion pictures. In that sense, photography is pre-modern as well as postmodern.

More here.