By Beatrice Paez
The manipulation of photographs dates as far back as the invention of photography itself, and though our arsenal of tricks has evolved, our motivations for fiddling with images remain unchanged. What do our alterations reveal about our intentions? Heather Downs, a professor at the University of Illinois, poses the explanation that our manipulations help us cope in the absence of a picture-perfect family. It erases the memory of family members that miss out on weddings and holidays.
Take the family portrait, for instance. In India, relatives missing in action at weddings later surface in pictures in a cut-and-paste fashion, marking a tradition that signifies respect and inclusion. With the advent of programs like Photoshop and Picasa, a similar story has emerged. Cropping out the people that trigger bitter memories can easily salvage old family photographs depicting a past life. A smile withheld or lost at the click of the shutter can be restored. There’s always a quick fix thanks to Photoshop. But what were the old tricks before the digital age?
The ROM recently unearthed a collection of painted photographs from India acquired about a decade ago. The exhibition features works dating from the 1860s through to the 21st century. “Embellished Reality” is worth a visit but as a side trip following your survey of the Mayan exhibit. It’s tucked away in a room, alongside the museum’s collection of Asian artifacts. At first glance, the works appear as collages, with objects and figures looking ready to leap out or fall off the image.
The painted photograph passed through many stages and people to produce the embellished effect that mutes certain elements to highlight others. One artist was needed to fiddle with the negative to eliminate the dark areas, another for softening the light, someone to paint the background with watercolors, a person to shape the figures and finally, an oil painter. While painted photographs don’t boast the same deceptive quality as the photoshopped images of today, it’s just as hard to imagine the expression originally plastered on their faces. The changing of facial expressions was also a common demand then, with patrons wishing to convey authority and kindness in their images.
Far from our assumption that image manipulation is mainly deployed to mask or enhance reality, this technique was also prized in its time for capturing reality. Painting photographs was also a device used to capture the essence of India, as a diverse, vibrant and colourful place to be, an image that such artists felt was lost in black and white photographs. This is exactly what comes across in the images featuring its people and scenery, even when the images are steeped in an “embellished reality.” While this style of photography fell out of fashion in India, it’s a worth a second look, even just to tickle our imagination and conception of reality.
The exhibit runs until March at the ROM’s H.H. Levy Gallery, Level 1.
You must be logged in to post a comment.