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Faking It Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop Metropolitan Museum Of Art

Photography has come a long way since its inception, evolving from black and white portraits to vibrant digital images. With the advent of Photoshop, manipulating photographs has become common practice. However, long before this revolutionary software existed, photographers were already finding ways to alter their images. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art houses a collection of manipulated photographs that showcases the ingenuity and creativity of early photographers. In this blog article, we will explore the fascinating world of manipulated photography before Photoshop at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

From double exposures to composite images, photographers of the past utilized various techniques to create captivating and often surreal visuals. These early pioneers pushed the boundaries of what was possible and demonstrated their artistic prowess through their work. Understanding the history of manipulated photography allows us to appreciate the evolution of the art form and gain insight into the techniques used by photographers in an era when digital manipulation was not an option.

The Art of Double Exposure

Double Exposure

Double exposure is a technique where two or more images are superimposed to create a single, unified photograph. This method allowed photographers to convey multiple narratives or create dreamlike compositions. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art houses some exquisite examples of double exposure photography that showcase the skill and vision of the artists behind them.

One of the earliest and most famous examples of double exposure photography is Henry Peach Robinson’s “Fading Away” (1858). In this haunting image, Robinson combines five separate negatives to create a scene of a young girl on her deathbed surrounded by her grieving family. The multiple exposures create a sense of ethereality and evoke a powerful emotional response from the viewer.

The Technical Process

Creating a double exposure image required meticulous planning and technical skill. Photographers had to carefully align the different negatives to ensure a seamless blend. They would often use masks or special equipment to control the exposure and prevent unwanted light from affecting the final image.

In the darkroom, the photographer would expose the first negative onto a photographic paper, then reposition the paper and expose it again with the second negative. This process required precision and a deep understanding of exposure and composition.

Symbolism and Narrative

Double exposure photography allowed artists to convey complex narratives and explore symbolism in their work. By combining different images, photographers could create visual metaphors and explore themes such as life and death, dreams and reality, or the passage of time.

For example, in the work of Jerry Uelsmann, a master of darkroom manipulation, double exposures are often used to create surreal and introspective scenes. Uelsmann’s photographs often feature floating objects, juxtapositions of nature and architecture, and dreamlike landscapes. Through these compositions, he invites viewers to contemplate the mysterious and interconnected nature of the world.

The Legacy of Double Exposure

The technique of double exposure continues to inspire and captivate contemporary photographers. While digital software like Photoshop now allows for easy manipulation, many artists still choose to create double exposures in-camera or experiment with film and darkroom techniques.

Photographers like Dan Mountford use double exposure to create intricate and layered images. Mountford’s work often combines portraits with natural elements, resulting in visually striking and introspective compositions. By embracing the limitations of analog photography, he brings a unique and timeless quality to his art.

The Illusion of Movement: Multiple Exposures

Multiple Exposures

By capturing multiple exposures of a moving subject in a single frame, photographers were able to create the illusion of movement in their photographs. This technique was particularly popular in capturing sports, dance, and other dynamic activities. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s collection features stunning examples of multiple exposure photography that perfectly encapsulate the energy and spirit of the subjects.

One notable example of multiple exposure photography is “Man Descending a Staircase” by Harold Edgerton (1952). Edgerton, a pioneer in high-speed photography, used multiple exposures to capture the different stages of a man descending a staircase. The resulting image showcases the fluidity of motion and freezes a moment in time that would otherwise be imperceptible to the human eye.

The Technical Process

Capturing multiple exposures required precise timing and coordination between the photographer and the subject. The photographer had to anticipate the movement and carefully time the shutter release to capture the desired moments. This often required a deep understanding of the subject’s motion and the technical capabilities of the camera.

Some photographers, like Eadweard Muybridge, developed specialized equipment to aid in capturing multiple exposures. Muybridge’s famous series of photographs depicting a horse in motion revolutionized the study of animal locomotion and paved the way for advancements in cinematography.

The Dynamic Energy of Sports Photography

Multiple exposure photography found a natural home in sports photography, where capturing the energy and movement of athletes was paramount. By layering several exposures of a player in action, photographers were able to convey the intensity and athleticism of the sport.

An iconic example of multiple exposure sports photography is Neil Leifer’s photograph of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston after knocking him out in their 1965 rematch. The image captures the raw power and triumph of Ali’s victory, freezing the decisive moment in a dramatic and dynamic composition.

Exploring Dance and Performance

The world of dance and performance also embraced multiple exposure photography as a means of capturing the fluidity and grace of movement. By layering the various poses and gestures of dancers, photographers were able to create visually stunning images that transcended the limitations of a single frame.

Richard Caldicott, a contemporary photographer known for his exploration of color and form, has produced captivating multiple exposure images of dancers. Through careful layering and composition, Caldicott captures the energy and elegance of the performers, creating dynamic and visually striking photographs.

The Mysterious Art of Photomontage


Photomontage involves combining different photographs or fragments of images to create a new composition. This technique allows for the creation of surreal and thought-provoking visuals. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art boasts a remarkable collection of photomontage pieces, each representing the artist’s unique perspective and creative vision.

Hannah Höch, a leading figure of the Dada movement, is celebrated for her pioneering work in photomontage. Höch’s collages challenged societal norms and gender roles, often featuring fragmented images of women juxtaposed with elements of consumer culture and political propaganda. Through her photomontages, she deconstructed and recontextualized the visual language of her time, creating powerful and thought-provoking compositions.

The Cutting and Pasting Process

Creating a photomontage required meticulous cutting and pasting of different images. Artists would collect photographs from various sources and carefully select and arrange them to create a coherent composition. The process of physically manipulating images allowed artists to explore textures, scale, and perspective in a way that digital manipulation cannot replicate.