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MFAH Exhibit Proves Photo Manipulation Did Not Start With Photoshop

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In these days where even the most basic of computers has Photoshop or some photo manipulation software, it's easy even for the non-techy to, say, create a visual or chef Mario Batali's head on Angelina Jolie's body. Or place their pet dog at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Or have a beloved deceased relative "looking over" a current family reunion snapshot.

But in previous decades and even centuries, photo manipulation was a painstaking craft and art form, and only the best practitioners made the piece look "real." This skill and their results are celebrated in the exhibit "Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Originally organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the 180 photos in this exhibit - spanning the 1840s to the 1990s - run the gamut of impetus from art and political persuasion to commerce and whimsy.

So whether it's a man juggling seven versions of his own decapitated head, or an air zeppelin docking at the tip of the Empire State building, or a sit down meeting between Russian leaders Lenin and Stalin which never actually occurred, "Faking It" plays a lot of tricks on the mind's eye.

"Most of the techniques used by artists in this exhibit are simple: multiple exposures, using multiple negatives, air brushing, or painting over," says Yasufumi Nakamori, the MFAH's Associate Curator of Photography. "And I hope that our audience will get a sense that today's digital technology embodies an artist's continuous desire to manipulate an image."

He adds that this manipulation both creates a nuance and challenges the "truth" of the photographic image. Something that was just as enticing to mid-19th century shutterbugs as their current contemporaries.

Nakamori also gives props to the Met's Mia Fineman, who originally put the exhibit together. "No one has created an exhibition on this subject in such a critical and comprehensive fashion," he notes. "We also liked that there are many photographs we are familiar with and are iconic, like you see in textbooks on the history of photography."

Among the most arresting images is Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders by an unknown artist. One can only imagine what its contemporary viewers thought (something along the lines of "Holy shit! Is that real?")

Other photo manipulations took on a clearly political/propaganda bent, like 1914's A Powerful Collision by an unknown artist which shows a seemingly huge fully-outfitted German soldier powerfully battering much smaller enemy combatants between his legs.

And still other artists - like Henry Peach Robinson in the mid-1800s - used dramatic and sentimental images to seemingly show an afterlife or ghostly visitations among the dead or dying and mourners. It's creepy stuff.

If anything, "Faking It" proves that today's Photoshop aficionados, with fingers bent over keyboards and scrolling mouses taking an image and changing it - for whatever reason - from its original state are not pioneers of photography.

So the next time you're sent an Internet meme or photo of a shark seemingly jumping out of the water to swallow a low-flying plane, or a man on top of the World Trade Center on September 11 with an oncoming jet in the background, or Kim Kardashian's posterior seemingly jutting out at inhuman levels (oh wait, that last one is probably real), know that they are simply carrying on a tradition as old as the art of photography itself.

Albeit with some cool digital tools their forefathers could never even dreamed of having. "Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop" runs through-August 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main St. www.mfah.org.

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