Tag Archives: Masterwork

‘Faking It’: Old-School Photo Trickery at the Met

With all due respect to the Who, wewillget fooled again. That’s what humans do. At one time or another, we suspend disbelief about virtually everything. And why not? As social creatures, we’re wired to trust others.

But what about when we know, with absolute certainty, that someone’s trying to put one over on us and rather than resisting, we embrace it? What does it say about the power of denial, not to mention our thirst for entertainment, when we actively seek out and celebrate artfully executed trickery?

A new show at the Met, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, shines a thoughtful light on the work of men and women who, throughout the history of the medium, have playfully (and, occasionally, with more sinister motives) doctored their own and others’ images. Not content with merely presenting the works themselves, though, Faking It also holds up something of a funhouse mirror to the viewer’s preconceptions of what photography really isand what it means.

After all, if photographers, printers and others involved in the craft have for centuries been altering the “reality” of what the camera capturesas, of course, they always have, and always willthen where is the hard, bright line between, say, a masterwork of photojournalism tweaked and perfected in the dark room and a photo adroitly doctored to make a political point? Professional photo editors might be able to say, with absolute sincerity, “That hard, bright line exists here.” But for the casual observer, the lay viewer, that distinction might feel like little more than an academic splitting of hairs; what matters is that a picture elicits a responseand with few exceptions, the images in Faking It do just that.

More than a few pictures in the show are memorable for the very reason that they are so obviously, to our contemporary eyes, manufactured. A French artist’s photo made to look like that of a man juggling his own head (slide 8 in the gallery above) might have stunned people in the 1880s; today, not so mucheven if we can appreciate the deliberate effort and even the intent that went into creating it. directory submission . An image of two Soviet premiers seated together, meanwhile, is so clearly an (altered) attempt to consecrate the mass-murdering Stalin as the rightful successor of Lenin that the picture would be comical if we didn’t have such a dreadful understanding of how brutal Stalin’s decades-long reign really was.

Other photos strike a chord for the simple reason that they are, by any measure, beautiful. The dream-like “Orpheus Scene” (1907) by the early fine-art photographer F. AntServe.com . Holland Day is so wonderfully moody that, at first glance, it might be the handiwork of the great French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon.

In the end, perhaps the pleasure we take in these pictures derives not from our sophisticated, skeptical, eminently modern sensibility in the age of Instagram, Pixelmator and the rest, but instead can be traced to a simpler, far more elemental source: our capacity, and our longing, for wonder.

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from Oct. 11, 2012 through Jan. 27, 2013.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

‘American Photographs’ by Walker Evans

Like the work of most great artists, the best of Walker Evans’ pictures are marvels of contradiction. Or, rather, they acquire their power through the contradictions they deftly reconcile. One especially striking example: a photograph from 1930 (slide 11 in this gallery) comprised of elements so incongruous that, taken together, they really should not bear scrutiny for more than a few moments before the viewer, shrugging indifferently, moves on.

But through Evans’ uncanny visual alchemy, that particular photograph’s disparate graphic elements—family photos; a half-hidden American flag; dried flowers; a truly hideous plant growing with almost unseemly vitality from a battered wooden bucket—appear not only to belong together, but to need one another in order to make sense.

MOMA

Cover

As seemingly chaotic and even unappealing as the image might feel at first glance, those wildly variant aspects of the photo—the flag, the plant, the faces—somehow cohere into something far more than the sum of their parts. Despite its initially jarring message, “Interior Detail of Portuguese House” does not, in fact, spurn scrutiny—it commands, and rewards, scrutiny. And what’s more amazing is that, after a time, the photograph appears to be gazing back. It is the viewer, and not the picture, that is the subject of an unblinking inquiry—and it’s unsettling.

But if Evans’ pictures are evidence of a rare facility for both creating and resolving contradictions, his career might be seen as his masterpiece. A fierce, determined artist, Walker Evans was for decades on staff at Time Inc.—a salaried editor at, of all places, Fortune magazine from the 1940s until the mid-1960s. That the man behind one of the seminal photographic efforts of the 20th century—the 1938 masterwork, American Photographs—went to the office each day, like any other nine-to-fiver, might astonish those photography buffs who have always, understandably, imagined Evans as nothing if not an irresistible creative force.

And yet, here again, Evans’ intrinsic contradictions—managed as Rodin might handle a lump of clay, or Koufax a curveball—are ultimately resolved in the photographs, singly and collectively, that he produced. He is both iconoclast and working stiff; company man and virtuoso.

This year marks the 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs, reissued by the Museum of Modern Art in an edition that recaptures, for the first time since its original release, what might be called the book’s radical purity. (The book itself, as a physical object, is a pleasure to hold; the duotone plates are gorgeous and crisp, and the size of this edition—an at-once solid and easily handled 7.75″ x 8.75″ hardcover—does justice to the serious, unfussy, thrilling nature of the work inside.)

As in the first edition, Evans’ pictures in the MoMa release appear only on the right-hand side as one turns each page, the utterly blank page on the left—without even a caption to distract the eye—adjuring one to look, to really look, at each picture, one after the other. And as the pages (slowly, slowly) turn, Evans’ accomplishment grows more evident, more impressive, more engaging.

The standard line on Evans is that no one—with a camera or a paintbrush—had ever captured America in quite the clear-eyed, unsentimental, honest  way that he did. But that patently true declaration still fails to encompass the scale and the sustained excellence of his achievement. In American Photographs, in images made during the Great Depression in places as divergent as Pennsylvania, Alabama, New York City and Havana, Cuba, Evans did not hold a mirror up to his country and his time: no mirror ever made, after all, could so clearly reflect what he saw, and what he wanted others to see.

Instead, each and every one of Evans’ pictures provides a window—or an unadorned window frame—from which even the glass has been removed, and through which we witness a scene of such clarity and immediacy that our own contemporary surroundings, if only for a moment, seem somehow less freighted with history. Less grounded. Less real.

The details of a house in Maine (slide 17)—the surprisingly jaunty, seemingly tilted windows; the elegant shapes, graceful patterns and, above all, the textures that give the structure its personality—are not merely the handiwork of people who obviously cared about their hard work; the details of the house are reminders of, and tributes to, the enduring value of hard work and the attention to craft.

The stance, the clothing and the unreadable expression on the face of a lean, dapper citizen of Havana in 1932 (slide 9) are not merely separate elements of a snapshot: like the details of a portrait by an Old Master, they combine to suggest a time, a place and an attitude (defiant, dignified) that have survived the passing decades intact—even if, by now, the man himself must be long dead.

These pictures, and the other pictures in American Photographs, are intensely daring precisely because the man who made them worked so hard to hide—to efface—the effort that went into creating them. Each image stands on its own, while at the same time each picture references the photograph that comes before, and the photograph that follows. It is a straightforward book that stirs complex emotions. It is a treasure.

‘Walker Evans: American Photographs (Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition)’ is available through the Museum of Modern Art.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.