Tag Archives: Pictorialism

It’s Photoshop! No, it’s 1864 …

Laurie says:

We think about photo manipulation as very now, but actually it’s as old as photography.

I started thinking about this after reading in the NY Times a few weeks ago that Robert Capa’s famous Spanish Civil War photo “Falling Soldier” may very well have been faked.

After nearly three-quarters of a century Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” picture from the Spanish Civil War remains one of the most famous images of combat ever. It is also one of the most debated, with a long string of critics claiming that the photo, of a soldier seemingly at the moment of death, was faked. Now, a new book by a Spanish researcher asserts that the picture could not have been made where, when or how Capa’s admirers and heirs have claimed.

If true,  this violates the most fundamental standards of 20th century documentary photography. Images are  supposed to be real. There may be choices of composition like the famous Tienanmen Square photo, where the crowds of people in the park are composed out and the man confronts the tank in isolation. But the image itself is supposed to be untainted.

Alexander Gardner documented the American Civil War. Both he and Mathew Brady arranged their photos of battlefield dead as art. This was acceptable at at time when painting was the standard, not objective journalism.

(The rest of the quotes are from Wikipedia)

One of his most famous images, ‘Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter’ is a complete fabrication, Gardner and his assistants Timothy O’Sullivan and James Gibson having dragged the sniper’s body 40 yards, into the more photogenic surrounds of the Devil’s Den in order to create a better composition.

It was intended to be a deeply commemorative image and he would have said that a ‘higher’ reality was the point.

The Swedish photographer Oscar Rejlander used a very different technique for his scandalous photograph ‘The Two Ways of Life’.

This was a seamlessly montaged combination print made of thirty-two images (akin to the use of Photoshop today, but then far more difficult to achieve) in about six weeks.

Both of these are part of the 19th photography art movement called Pictorialism.

Pictorialism largely subscribed to the idea that art photography needed to emulate the painting and etching of the time. Most of these pictures made were black & white or sepia-toned. Among the methods used were soft focus, special filters and lens coatings, heavy manipulation in the darkroom, and exotic printing processes.

All of this sounds a lot like Photoshop, except that it often takes very high levels of 19th century technical skills – skills that were limited to a small number of people.  And as with Photoshop today, anything goes.

There are endless questions on art, truth, “reality” and ethics and different times answer them differently. In the next few months I’m going to write rather explicitly about my own methods and standards.