By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO SOONER HAD THE INFANT ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY asked the world of the 1800’s to trust it as the ultimate in visual verity (the camera doesn’t lie!) than it also began to turn itself into the most unreliable of narrators. Truth-telling and bald-face lying grew up side-by-side in the picture-making world, and they have been conjoined twins ever since. If P.T. Barnum was right that “there’s a sucker born every minute”, then certainly every one of those chumps has had his very own faked photograph.
Some of the fraud has been benign, as when Julia Margaret Cameron dressed up her friends to portray the great authors and heroes of history, or when landscape artists combined seashores from one negative with clouds from another for a pleasing montage. Other fakes were more sinister, with nations manufacturing claims of war crimes against their foes or tabloids “proving” conspiracy theories with massaged “evidence”. And somewhere in the middle has always been the “that’s not real, is it?” photo, something which we can’t allow ourselves to either believe or resist, the charming charlatan, the obvious put-on.
Barnum and his bunch were fairly coy about their fakery, filling the first era of mass-produced press photography with doctored images that were literally too good to be true and challenging all comers to verify their veracity. Today, fakes are more ironic than compelling, since the tools to concoct them are so universally available as to make them commonplace. The object isn’t so much to actually fool anyone, but to comment on how easy it is to make the camera lie.
Years after Barnum’s death, the circus that later bore his name actually made a half-hearted attempt to concoct its own “unicorn” for its shows, something even the great humbug himself never did. Using a phone app, indifferent lighting and focus, and the freakishly arranged shape of an old bagpipe on display at Phoenix’ Musical Instrument Museum, I worked up a reasonable fake tintype of a unicorn’s mummified head, the like of which might have graced the master showman’s old dime museum. It took me about five minutes.
The main difference between the fakery of the Victorian age and the variety we practice today is that, in the 21st century, the fakers, myself included, confess right away. We want to get the points for being oh, so clever. And since you know we have the means to show you anything, we already know you believe almost nothing, so it’s no longer about convincing you a unicorn exists. It’s about the ride.
Photography didn’t just arrive at the place where truth is negotiable, anymore than fiction just recently became about “making stuff up”. We pitcher folk have always been, to a degree, untrustworthy. But as Barnum said, “the bigger the humbug, the better people will like it”. Hurry, hurry, hurry…… step right up….