What you probably didn't know is that photos were lying more than a century before Photoshop became a verb. Photographers were mucking with their images way back in the 19th century when the medium was still young, painting or scratching out pesky objects and faces they didn't want in their image.
That's one of the more remarkable revelations in "Keeping Shadows," an exhibition on the history of photography currently at the Phoenix Art Museum. Drawn from the collection of Massachusetts' Worcester Museum of Art, "Shadows" features more than 100 images ranging from 19th-century daguerreotypes to 21st-century photos from NASA space probes. There's work by big-deal photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Cecil Beaton, and Ansel Adams, but this is more than a greatest-hits compilation. "Shadows" explores our relationship with photography by showing how the medium, and our perception of it, has evolved during the past century and a half.
Since the days of daguerreotypes, we've been unsure of how to regard these amazing bits of captured light and shadow. Are photos infallible depictions of reality, or fabrications that cannot be trusted? Middlebrow hobby for the Kodak point-and-shoot set or high art? Or is photography a magical hypervision that shows us parts of the world our eyes miss?
"Shadows" shows photography is, or has been, all of these things. It's a smart show.
The exhibition begins its timeline of photography in the 1840s, when primitive photos captured likenesses and nothing more. An 1848 daguerreotype by Marcus Aurelius Root of social reformer Dorothea Dix is stiff, serious and very posed, testament to the reverence with which these newfangled, high-tech images were held, and to the primitive technology that required sitters to remain as still as a statue for several minutes or appear as a blur in the finished piece.
An 1862 photo by John Murray of India's Agra Fort seems straightforward enough, but look at the negative that hangs next to the print and you can see the beginnings of our ambivalence about photography. Murray has painted out the sky to heighten the contrast between the fort walls and the background. You can see his big, fat brush strokes on the negative. As a result, the sky appears on the print as a bright white field and the building as a hulking dark form. It's a small and morally harmless change compared to, say, Time magazine's infamous darkening of O.J. Simpson's face in a photo for a 1994 cover.
But here it is, the smoking gun that shows photo manipulation has been going on almost as long as photography has existed.
Look closely at the Arnold Genthe photo of a Chinese man and a trio of children in traditional garb and you can see ghostlike forms in the street over their shoulders. Genthe shot the photo at the turn of the century in San Francisco's Chinatown, but he wanted it to look like he had made it in China. So he scratched out the telltale signs of America, street signs and electric wires. And Werner Mantz scratched the negative of his 1927 image of a shiny new German apartment building, obscuring the view inside the building's windows so you would look at the architecture and not at the stuff inside the apartments.
There are examples of more insidious manipulation in the show, too. Farm Security Administration photos, with their searing 1930s-era images of ragged Okies and ruined farms, are regarded as the gold standard for fact-capturing, documentary photography. But the placard accompanying the exhibition's examples of these classic images tells how Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and other photographers worked from a "shooting script" provided to them by FSA director Roy Stryker. Photographers were instructed to shoot at eye level and choose images that showed Americans as honest, hardworking folk beset by hard times, all in the name of selling Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal social programs to the masses. FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein was busted in 1936, we learn, for dropping a cow skull into his photos of a parched South Dakota pasture.
Unfortunately, "Shadows" doesn't include the Rothstein photos in which the cow skull kept appearing in different places. But once you know about the bony prop and the government script, you wonder if the iconic 1936 Dorothea Lange photo in the show, the one of the bereft, prematurely aged mother surrounded by her dirty children, is a historical artifact of the Great Depression or an orchestrated photo-op worthy of Karl Rove.
According to "Keeping Shadows," photography's relationship to the real world has always been casual. Sure, a photo may be worth a thousand words, but don't be surprised if those words turn out to be fiction.