By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE PAST TWO CENTURIES, MUCH OF PHOTO MANIPULATION has been akin to a magic trick, in that the creator wants to call attention to the effect rather than the technique. Indeed, photographic fakery is most often the art of not getting caught when distorting or reinventing reality. In the age of Photoshop, it has become tougher to detect where the wires are, even though more of us than ever are indulging in a little polite puppeteering. However, any historic discussion of altered images must include a man who did everything he could to let his audience in on the joke.
Advertising savant George Lois, who died in 2022 at the age of 92, saw his career peak during photography’s first true ascendancy in both marketing and advocacy. Beginning in the 1950’s, the technology for reliably printing color images coincided with the dominance of national news and art magazines,. The trend made Lois, one of the first of what are now called graphic designers, to become a superstar in his own right, developing an uncanny ability to snare eyeballs and change the cultural conversation, all the while decidedly ringing the cash register for his clients. In his snarky, satirical use of photographs in both ads and mag covers, he created national crazes and hip cocktail conversation by composing patently fake pictures with a wink to the audience that seemed to say, you know I’m doing this. These things never happened. We’re just seeing what it would look like if they had….
In nearly a hundred covers for Esquire magazine in the 1960’s, George Lois seized upon the hippest and most pivotal figures of the culture and counterculture, from Mohammed Ali to LBJ to McCarthy-era hitman Roy Cohn to Woody Allen, generating imaginative mashups of their actual images with impossible staging for editorial effect. For his Esquire covers, he cranked out fever dreams like Andy Warhol being sucked into a whirlpool inside a Campbell’s soup can (top), and Richard Nixon (whose presidential defeat in 1960 had been partly attributed to his on-camera appearance) sitting in a make-up chair getting ready for his big comeback (above). Lois, the man who had shaped campaigns for everyone from Xerox to Aunt Jemima to USA Today, and who would eventually have the world chanting, “I Want My MTV!”, delivered everything to his customers wrapped in a wry confession: Hey, we’re just selling stuff here. YOU get it, right? Instead of soap powder or toothpaste, Lois’ “product” was the editorial content inside the magazine. It seems insanely obvious now, but then, it was a revelation.
As a man who oversaw everything from concept to completion, Lois hated portrayals of his business like the Scotch-and-cigarette playboy Don Draper and all of his ilk on the Mad Men series, which made ad execs look like the driving force of the agencies instead of those who “worked full, exhausting, joyous days: pitching new business, creating ideas, “comping” them up, storyboarding them, selling them, photographing them, and directing commercials.” Years ahead of the digital revolution that now make fakery easy to conceal, Lois and his cohorts (capitalist hucksters all) showed us that the rabbit was not actually in the hat but tucked inside the table. In some very entertaining ways, he was more honest, in his swindling than many of his successors.