Faked photographs and objects of journalism in the late 19th Century

tucherEditors’ note: In our installment of August’s Ethnographies of Objects edition, we hear from Andie Tucher about the curious image below that of a ‘Silent City’ that was later found to be fake and about the celebration of faking as a response to the so-called “ultra-realism” of the time. Andie Tucher is an associate professor and the director of the Communications PhD Program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her exploration of faked photographs is part of a work in progress investigating the evolution of truth-telling conventions in journalism. A former journalist, she earned her PhD in American Civilization from New York University.

In 1888 Dick Willoughby, a prospector and certified “character” in Alaska, was charging 75 cents apiece for copies of this photograph, which he said showed the mirage of a “silent city” arising from the Muir glacier. Soon, however, critics unmasked it as the image of a random English city superimposed on one of a glacier, and explicitly condemned it as a “fake.” But while that effort at faking was clearly bad, it’s also not representative of what for a brief time photographic faking was understood to be. Less than a decade after Willoughby’s disgrace, many commercial and artistic photographers were cheerily and publicly discussing how faking could be good and deliberately applying the otherwise disreputable term to a range of generally benign retouching techniques.

For my research into the evolution of conventions of journalistic truth-telling, I often find it useful to analyze the ways a particularly resonant word was used by journalists and the public in the general and professional press—the closest a historian can come to exploring social meanings through participant observation.

“I believe in faking,” one commercial photographer proclaimed to a wildly appreciative audience of his colleagues. Skillful faking was a way, he insisted, to overcome “the falseness of ultra-realism” and achieve “not literal, but spiritual and eternal truth.” Professional journals explained matter-of-factly how to “fake” a sitter’s nose into a nicer shape, how to “fake” clouds in a stark sky, how to “fake” an air of misty mystery in a city street, and Edward Steichen himself argued that “every photograph is a fake from start to finish.” These manipulations weren’t seen as deceptive; they were seen as a way to make reality prettier, more artistic, just plain better.

But the commercial and artistic photographers who embraced faking soon met a challenge from something brand-new: the profession of photojournalism. That profession did not exist until around the beginning of the 20th century, when technological advances made it possible and the cultural movement toward realism made it important to reproduce actual photographs in newspapers. These new photojournalists based their identity in large part on their vigorous and public repudiation of any fake—any interference with reality–whether it meant adding a city to a glacier or misty atmospherics to a city. So I wouldn’t say that faked photographs in the late nineteenth century weren’t seen as objects of journalism because they were manipulated. To some extent, faked photographs were manipulated because photographs in the late nineteenth century weren’t seen as objects of journalism.

Further reading:

Mia Fineman, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012). Great pictures but a very expansive idea of what “faking” means.

Errol Morris, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (NY: Penguin, 2011). Always has an interesting, if unexpected, perspective.

Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (Chapel Hill: UNC, 1989). Thoughtful and provocative.

Andie Tucher, “The True, the False, and the ‘Not Exactly Lying’: Making Fakes and Telling Stories in the Age of the Real Thing,” in Literature and Journalism: Inspirations, Intersections, and Inventions from Ben Franklin to Stephen Colbert, ed. Mark Canada, 91-118 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Newspaper reporters went through their own romance with faking.

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