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When the camera lies

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WASHINGTON -- Early last month, on the very first morning of the 113th United States Congress, the Democratic contessa and former Speaker Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi summoned her entire class of 61 female Representatives -- the largest number of women ever elected from one party at one time -- to the steps of the Capitol for a celebratory photograph.

Four of the ladies failed to show for the snapshot. But when Pelosi's office released the picture on her Flickr page later that day, there they were anyway, photographed tardily and separately and then digitally pasted onto the back row, as if the politician and her press flacks actually were disseminating truth.

The biggest scandal that ensued was that there was no scandal.

"It was an accurate historical record of who the Democratic women of Congress are," Pelosi shrugged a day later. "It is also an accurate record that it was freezing cold and our members had been waiting a long time for everyone to arrive."

Now it is a few weeks ex post photo and we are attending the opening of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art that informs us that this sort of deceit-in-the-name-of-art-and-politics has been going on since the invention of photography itself by the Parisian Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre back in 1839.

"DOES THE CAMERA LIE?" asks the caption on a century-old postcard showing two light bulbs so gigantic they fill the entire bed of a railroad flatcar. The answer, as anyone who has lived in an Adobe shack can tell you, is of course it does.

The curator is Mia Fineman of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. She reports it took her three-and-a-half years to assemble this delightful and disturbing collection of devious fakery.

Some of the images she has selected are whimsical -- French artist Yves Klein pretending to swan-dive two storeys onto bare concrete; headless men holding up their severed, smiling noggins; a postcard of Canadian cattle so prodigious that an auctioneer is standing atop a dino-size Hereford steer.

But others are more diabolical, as in a series of successively published images of Josef Stalin and his comrades from which first a certain Antipov, then Shvernik, then Komarov have been airbrushed from history in the same order in which they have been shot on the dictator's whim.

Curator Fineman has a name for this sort of pre-computer sorcery: protoshopping.

Her exhibition, entitled Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, makes it clear that our faith in Père Daguerre's "mirror that remembers" has always been misplaced.

"Photography has lost some of its credibility in the digital age," she says when I ask about Nancy Pelosi's magic reappearing quartet. "But people shouldn't have been credible before."

Photographic prestidigitation is so commonplace today that no one expects a Facebook post or an Instagram image to reflect the real world. Whether this loss of faith signals the death knell of professional photojournalism will depend on whether any scrupulous publications and web sites will be able to survive and profit from their integrity.

But then we see a whopper from the 19th century -- the head of General Ulysses S. Grant, cropped from another picture, plopped onto a different officer's shoulders and superimposed on a panorama of a Confederate prison camp that Grant himself never visited -- and it seems a miracle that anyone ever has been able to earn a living by proffering the real thing.

By the 1880s, the prominent Montreal studio photographer William Notman was specializing in "composite portraiture" in which dozens of members of, say, the Red Hat Snow Shoe Club of Halifax or the Grand Trunk Railway Engineering Department were individually snapped and then cut and pasted to form a collegial but entirely fictional scene.

The difference, Fineman says, is that from the days of the Daguerreotype, to William Notman and as late as the First World War, viewers found such duplicity to be "not an outright lie, but an ideologically motivated, aesthetically perfected exaggeration of the truth" and took no offence.

(You didn't even have to wait for the camera to be invented to participate in the charade. In the Capitol rotunda is a large painting, completed in 1824, of George Washington surrendering his commission as commanding officer of the Continental Army. The artist included George's wife, Martha, and her grandchildren in the audience, even though they were not present at the actual event.)

So we scroll down to 2013, when anyone with a telephone and a Twitter account can become Yves Klein, tumbling from the ramparts of reality.

"The truth is, photography is a matter of trust between individuals," Mia Fineman is saying as we tour her rooms of forgery and fraud. "You can't look to the camera to guarantee the truth, and it's always been that way."

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian

journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 J11

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