You would think newspapers have a responsibility to present photographs as unquestioned reality, right? Photos are visual reporting, putatively unbiased and accurate! Remember how everybody called bullshit when Iran sent out an "enhanced" photo of a not-100-percent successful bunch of missiles being launched and a shot of a not-flying fighter jet flying over a mountain it never flew over? (Hey, they had their reasons, we're not here to pick on Iran, we just needed a modern example.)
Right here in America the Beautiful, and more specifically, Baltimore the Beautiful (when viewed under certain lighting conditions), newspapers for years have altered the reality of photographs through (mostly) skillful manipulation and retouching, with the innocuous intent of providing the reader with a clear and sharp visual to accompany and sometimes even support the words of a story. The words are the things that get called a "pack of lies" or libel, not usually the photos. Usually.
Meanwhile, the inherent limitations of the photographic process-such as distorting proportion and scale, and compressing the field of view-are either not fully enough understood to be questioned, or understood and/or accepted as a reasonable analogue; but image editing, through cutting and assembling, along with painting out and eliminating information ("opaquing"), or hand-painting details to enhance reproduction, may be looked at as dishonest-but with only a certain degree of criminality inferred. People used to say a photo was "airbrushed," now they say it's been "Photoshopped," and usually it's in reference to the latest celebrity on the cover of a fashion magazine, so it's seen as a cheat, but not so much a crime, any more than plastic-surgery enhancements on that same picture-perfect celeb's potential forehead-crease or jowl sag are. Serious Journalist-types may weigh in and say nothing should be done to anything, so whatever, for the sake of not having an argument, let's agree all photography is a lie and move on from there.
OK, so back in the days of film cameras and silver gelatin on paper prints of photographs, newspapers had to mark up and write instructions on prints, plus crop, edit, and retouch the photographs, otherwise a lot of them would end up printing like gray smudges. The version of the image that appeared in print was the ultimate expression of all the production communication and tech employed by papers, and nobody outside the newspaper building ever saw the weird intermediary steps in the process, and that's where we find our art opportunity!
Chief Curator Tom Beck, Chief of Collections Emily Hauver, and a team of student assistants in UMBC's Special Collections pulled a group of painted-on, cut-up, and pieced-together photo prints from the 1920s to the '70s from the collection's Baltimore Sun archive and presented them in a large-93, to be exact, but given this fascinating opportunity, not large enough-exhibit at the UMBC Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery so that they can be viewed as billed: in A New Context.
Marking up and cropping along with brushed opaquing, blacking over, and crossing out stuff all serve to transform prosaic photo prints into energetic, humorous, and sometimes violent works of art. In the text panel accompanying the exhibit, curator Beck points out one of the best examples in the show, an AP wirephoto print of a simple grid of four headshots from 1958, captioned "southern girls among top ten," featuring beauty queens from Arkansas, North Carolina, Texas, and Oklahoma. Heavy black arrows point toward Miss Oklahoma, along with oklahoma hand-printed on the edge of the photo, and so there can be absolutely no mistake an editor wanted to run only the shot of Miss Oklahoma, the other three ladies' faces are obliterated with heavy black. "The full photograph is reminiscent of a cross between an Andy Warhol print and a John Baldessari painting," Beck writes, and he goes on to point out Miss Oklahoma, second runner-up in the 1959 Miss America Pageant, was Anita Bryant, who went on to become a pop singer and "controversial opponent of Gay Rights." Context is all, and history changes context and what we decide an image means. Fun!
For new context, the photos are grouped in categories such as "Icons," "Destruction," "Body Language," "Competition," and "Power." A 1964 photo by Paul Hutchins displayed in "Race Relations" shows three unnamed African-American linemen in blocking positions in front of Preston Nash, quarterback for the City College football team. Mr. Nash appears to be a white gentleman, and his image is boxed in by heavily painted crop lines, indicating the part of the photo that would run in the paper. In the context of Race Relations, this is a little behind the curve for 1964, but it's still suspect. However, football linemen of any race and any era would be quick to tell you they get no respect.
Other examples in the show include overly cautious editing of a possible genital protuberance in a photo of a young man in a snug swimsuit, and we say "overly cautious" because the image is also marked up to be cropped head and shoulders, just over the gent's nipples. Examples of further techniques of image editing include an image of a woman's face so heavily painted over it might as well be a painting, as well as state-of-the-art crude but effective cutouts; in the case of a 1951 photo captioned "Youth Board," by Albert D. Cochran, an unknown graphic artist, has cut into the image featuring "Carolyn Welsh, Seton High School," and "Martin Salan, Forest Park High School" in order to seat Carolyn a good two feet closer to Martin than she was in the uncut photo, and for some reason, somehow, in advance of this new position, she doesn't look too thrilled with the situation. Context.
A New Context: Photographs from the Baltimore Sun Revisited is on display at the UMBC Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery Through May 31. A panel discussion on the intersection of print media, journalistic photography, and art, featuring UMBC faculty and Sun staff will be held April 23 at the gallery. For more information, call (410) 455-2270 or go to my.umbc.edu/news/27039.