City Breaks, Museums

Faking It: Enhanced Photography at the Met


You know you do it.  You edit your photos before you share them anywhere.  It’s ok.  Everyone does it.  Anyone with a half-decent Facebook profile photo knows the value of photo editing, even if you are only editing an iPhone photo.  There’s no need to be ashamed.  In fact, you can now feel vindicated.  Because enhanced photography was recently highlighted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  And by the size of the crowd on the Sunday afternoon when I visited, it was a pretty popular exhibit indeed.


The exhibit was divided between two galleries.  The first featured enhanced photos from before the digital age–you know, from the dawn of photography up until a few decades ago.  The second featured digitally enhanced photography.  And for the life of me, I can’t decide which one was more grippingly interesting, because each offers a totally different perspective on the purpose of manipulating photographs.

In the pre-digital age, photographs were altered to make them look more real.  Due to the limitations of early cameras and the long exposure time required to capture images, most photographs had flaws that needed to be corrected if they were to truly represent the intended scene.  Photographers penciled in clouds, added color, and often literally cut-and-pasted in items that were missing from the shot, all in the hopes to make a photo look more lifelike.

I find this to be very ironic.  In the age of Instagram (or, in my case, Camera Awesome or Snapseed) we spend so much time and effort making our photos look surreal when all early photographers wanted was for their photos to appear half as realistic as a crummy iPhone shot.

A photo I took with my iPhone, edited in Snapseed, and combined in Picasa.  Total time maybe five minutes.  Ultimate goal, to make the photo LESS life-like.

A photo I took with my iPhone, edited in Snapseed, and combined in Picasa. Total time maybe five minutes. Ultimate goal, to make the photo LESS life-like.

The post-digital age gallery highlighted photos that where the medium itself was the digital enhancement.  From a perspective on a Indian street that simply could not have happened naturally to a composite landscape that doesn’t really exist, the post-digital-age gallery was a veritable wonderland of editing-as-art.  A personal favorite was an exhibit called My Pie Town, a collection of depression-era photographs enhanced by artist Debbie Grossman.  And by ‘enhanced’ I mean ‘she turned all of the men into women’.

Of course, as a traveler, my favorite piece was 49 States, pictured in the header photo of this post.  To learn more about this awesome undertaking, you’ll have to click that link–because, sadly, the Faking It exhibit ended a week and a half ago.

Truly, this was a deeply thought-provoking exhibit.  And as an added bonus, it makes me feel better about my own obsessive need to digitally enhance my own photographs.  So what if I occasionally over-blur, over-saturate, or otherwise over-process a shot?  Photographers have been doing it since the first shutter ever released.  Photo editing is as much an art form as photography itself.  I will continue to paint with it, often in broad strokes.

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