To certify a good lie there is nothing more useful than a credible photograph, and that is that although times have changed and photography is no longer a guarantee of anything, the “liar” will always gain some time until at a second glance the unsuspecting spectator becomes aware of the deception. This has been the case since the very origins of photography -Hippolythe Bayard (1801-1887) already claimed the invention of photography with a fake in which he communicated his own death”-, where staging was a habitual practice of first authors such as Oscar Gustav Rejlander (1813-1875), Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) or Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), not so much as a creative resource but as a reminiscence of the pictorial tradition in which those early photographers tried to define their practice.

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Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away, 1858

And from such reminiscences and from necessity will come the justification of manipulation: to build a credible fiction, it is necessary to overcome the limitations that reality imposes on photography, since strictly speaking, the camera is only capable of recording that which is shown before the lens. Thus, for example, Rejlander’s photograph “The Juggler” (1865), although defined within the aesthetic patterns of the pictorial tradition and with a result that in spite of the author’s mastery is revealed to us somewhat naïve (the sharpness of the balls suspended in the air and the relaxed attitude of the subject evidence the trick), resorts to manipulation to overcome the limitation of prolonged exhibition times that prevented the movement from freezing and constructing the scene imagined by the artist.

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander, The Jugglar (1865)

It will be the surrealists and the Bauhaus group who will exploit the creative possibilities of manipulation and photographic montage as a vehicle for conceptual expression, where the link with the real referent takes second place and a new image is constructed that is inserted in a new semantic field and whose referent is situated in an oniric and unreal space. Hannah Hoch (1889-1979), Man Ray (1890-1976), John Heartfield (1891-1968), Aleksandr Ródchenko (1891-1956), László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), Herbert Bayer (1900-1985) or the Spaniard Jorge Rueda (1943-2011) are some of the artists who during the 1920s explored the creative possibilities of montage and photographic manipulation in their works.

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Herbert Bayer, Humanly Impossible (1932)

The photographic manipulation is not only limited to the field of artistic creation and the examples of photographic alteration as an element of ideological propaganda are notable, as subtle as the “a priori” alteration of the stage in the Valley of the Shadow of Death that Roger Fenton made in the commissioned report on the Crimean War, such as the scandalous cases of tampering that seek to direct the reading of the photographic message in a certain direction – see as an example illustrating this second intention, the case of the cover that Time magazine published in June 1994, in the middle of O.J. Simpson’s trial, obscuring the athlete’s face – the same photograph was published by NewsWeek that same week – which provoked some controversy over the racist attitude of the publication.

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Newsweek and Time covers for June 1994

The paradigm shift that digital technology caused in photography, and the ease with which new software tools manipulate the layers of the photographic image, opened Pandora’s box for new artist-photographers who experimented with the new possibilities that the medium offered them. The American artist Nancy Burson was one of the first to produce a series in which she used digital techniques to manipulate and compose portraits: in the series “Composite Silver Prints” (1982) Burson superimposes individual portraits from which fictitious characters emerge – pondering the number of nuclear warheads in each country and proposes a portrait that has 55% of Ronald Reagan, 45% of Breznev, less than 1% of Thatcher, Mitterrand and Deng- simulates rejuvenation and aging processes based on portraits of personalities such as Elvis, Marilyn and the Barbie doll, or proposes new and impossible animals such as the lion-lamb, or the cat-dog.

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Nancy Burson, Composite Silver Prints (1982)

In “20×24 Polaroid Composites” (1988), using composition and transformation techniques, Burson computer generated new faces that she later photographed with a Polaroid camera, to generate unique prints of each portrait. Nancy Burson’s interest in the morphology of the human face has transcended the realm of art, making her research and work the basis of a patented technology that would be used for computer applications in aging predictions, and used by the FBI to help find missing persons.

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Untitled, Unique 20″ X 24″ polaroid from computer generated composite image, 1988

The Human Race Machine is a provocative project by Nancy Burson, commissioned in 2000 by the London Millennium Dome. It is an interactive installation in which the spectator sees their own face transformed under the appearance of different races. Burson created a series with the image of Trump under the appearance of five races (Black, Asian, Hispanic, Central European and Indian). The intention of the work is to provoke a reaction of empathy towards the other-different and to invite the viewer to reflect on an issue that is more social than genetic. A variant of this work is the work “Mankind/Womankind” (2005) where applying a statistical sampling to the images compiled by the Human Race Machine produces three new faces that it assigns to the genres Mankind, Womankind and Mankind-Womankind.

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Nancy Burson. Mankind / Womankind (2005)

Burson’s work shows a convergence between art, technology and activism, developing its artistic dimension along the physiognomy of the human face where the artist proposes universal questions, her social commitment has turned the fruit of her research into useful tools to solve real problems in society. Her activism is already evident in her first works, where she warns about the nuclear escalation of the great powers, or in the criticisms she makes of the military escalation from her first works, to the denunciation of the political manoeuvres of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, represented in a surprising process of metamorphosis in which the faces of both presidents merge and which Time magazine picked up on its July 2018 cover: Consensual manipulation of the image, for a Time cover with a very different purpose on this occasion.

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Nancy Burson, Time cover, June 2018

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