Photoshopping before Photoshop: What Do the Women of the 113th Congress and Gen. William T. Sherman’s Staff Have in Common?
Answer: they both needed a little help from Photoshop — or the contemporary equivalent — to get together for a group photo.
A few feathers were ruffled this weekend (because some people will complain about anything) by a photo of the female Democratic representatives from the 113th Congress in which four congresswomen were digitally added after the fact:
It was an accurate historical record of who the Democratic women of Congress are…It also is an accurate record that it was freezing cold and our members had been waiting a long time for everyone to arrive and…had to get back into the building to greet constituents, family members, to get ready to go to the floor. It wasn’t like they had the rest of the day to stand there.
Since various bloggers with nothing better to do are going to chew on this issue for a while, arguing about whom Pelosi should have disclosed the alterations to and when, I thought people might find this case from 1865 interesting:
“During the Grand Review of the Armies held in Washington, D.C., at the close of the Civil War, Brady scheduled an afternoon portrait session with Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman and his closest staff. All but one of the eight officers arrived promptly at the studio. ‘At 3 o’clock he had not put in an appearance,’ Brady recalled of the missing general, ‘so we made a negative without him’ (see ills.). Later in the day, when the tardy officer presented himself, Brady photographed him alone, reuniting him with his comrades by means of photomontage.”
(Image and text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online exhibition)
The two cases are, apart from the beards, just about the same in all respects, including the willingness of people at the time to treat the altered photograph as the official record. We know about it, of course, both because Mathew Brady told people and because the edit job isn’t that hard to spot, but as far as history is concerned this is a reliable portrait of Gen. Sherman and his staff.
Which, to be honest, it is. Those are actually the dudes he worked with (and their awesome beards). The goal isn’t to record a moment in history — “That Time When William Sherman and a Bunch of Dudes Sat or Stood in a Tent Somewhere” — but rather to record a group of people.
Likewise the Democratic congresswomen. The photographer (and editor, if they were two separate people) wasn’t trying to record a unique second in time, but rather a unique group of people. The goal was to visually capture the Democratic women of the 113th Congress on the day of their swearing-in, and I’m going to go ahead and say that the goal was achieved.
And if it needed a little help from Photoshop, well, what was good enough for Mathew Brady is damn well good enough for us.
Humorous Afternote: Brady’s nephew apparently used the same technique and his uncle’s stock of negatives to flat-out make shit up years after the war, providing the cautionary side to this tale of photo-editing:
“Handy began his photographic career as an apprentice in the studio of his uncle Mathew B. Brady. Upon Brady’s death in 1896, Handy inherited his uncle’s stock of Civil War negatives, which he mined as a steady source of income, producing new prints from the negatives and licensing images to numerous publications. To satisfy the steady demand for heroic images of the war, he also invented new pictures that casually blurred the line between historical fact and fiction. This photograph, which purports to show General Ulysses S. Grant on horseback at the Union Army headquarters at City Point, Virginia, is a composite of three negatives, all dating to 1864: the head was lopped off an informal portrait of Grant; the rider’s body belongs to Union Army General Alexander McDowell McCook; and the background shows an internment camp for Confederate soldiers.”
The photograph from which the face comes hangs above my desk! (An inspirational reminder to “lick ‘em tomorrow,” as Grant supposedly and no-doubt drunkenly told Sherman on the first night at Shilo.)
So yeah, people do sometimes push the limit of the historical record with this stuff. But I think we can all tell the difference in both intent and finished product between something like Brady’s (and Pelosi’s) editing of a portrait and Handy’s commercial fictionalizing.