Every photograph is manipulated. At each stage of the process, photographers make decisions that challenge the rhetoric of objectivity. They choose the type of camera they will use and which lens, they determine exposure times, they select and frame shots. They may also pose their subjects or set up scenes. As they develop and print, photographers (or a person charged with producing an image) may employ any of a variety of darkroom practices—dodging and burning, masking, vignetting, cropping, multiple exposure, combination printing, collage, and photomontage, for example. They may then retouch or hand-color a print. The goal of all these decisions is to transform a photograph into the desired image. In the digital era, the process has just become easier: the results may be more seamless or perhaps more obvious to make plain the malleability of the medium and the interest in critique.

Manipulation, however, has not always sat comfortably with the idea and practice of photography. Those who approach it as essentially a truthful representation of reality tend to downplay the various human interventions that take place throughout the photographic process. Aesthetic trends that advocate “straight photography” also marginalize photography that “announces the fact that it has been shaped by an imagination, that it is an artificial document, that it has purposely altered one’s expectation that the photograph is an accurate transcription of reality.” [1]

In recent decades, however, the uneasiness with and the doubts about manipulation have receded. On the one hand, studies from a wide range of fields—from photography theory, history, art history to cultural studies—have collectively deconstructed the myth that the photographic medium has a superior claim to reality. Although the question of whether and how photography has a distinct ontological nature remains a topic for debate, few would argue that manipulation is something derivative or antithetic to the photographic medium. At the same time, digital technologies such as the mobile camera and Photoshop have foregrounded manipulation to an unprecedented degree.

A 2012 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, reminds viewers that “the desire and determination to modify the camera image are as old as photography itself.”[2] Its curatorial difference from John Szarkowsky’s The Photographer’s Eye (1964, MOMA)—a landmark show now recognized as the kick start of a new photographic aesthetic that privileged the documentary function of photography as something specific to the medium—reminds us of the quiet yet paradigmatic shift that has taken place in the understanding of photography. To put it simply: today, we take photographic manipulation for granted.

When we sent out the call for papers for this special issue of the Trans Asian Photography Review, we were curious to see how scholars would respond to this shift in the understanding of photography. We posed this question: “How have photographers working in Asia engaged in practices that might be regarded as thinking beyond the camera to create images that combine document and artifice?”

Manipulation is a widely discussed subject in Asian photography studies. From backdrops used in Indonesian photo studios to the heavy coloring and retouching prevalent in India, many topics relating to manipulation have been explored, including in the pages of the TAP Review, to illuminate the social context of photographic production and reception as well as culturally rooted understandings of the medium.[3] Through a focused discussion at a time when manipulation is finally freed from its binary position to reality, we were interested to tap into underlying trends that might point to new interpretive and critical frameworks of photographic manipulation.

Although it was not our intention to single out photographic practices in any one locale, the serendipity of an open call has brought us an issue that centers on, for the most part, the Chinese-speaking world, China and Taiwan in particular. The pieces presented here might be thought of as case studies illuminating the work of certain practitioners or workshops during specific time periods. Collectively, they provide a glimpse into Chinese photographers’ rich and complex engagements with manipulation, manipulation that renders the seemingly familiar surprising.

Mia Yinxing Liu writes about the photography of Lang Jingshan (Chin-san Long) and a series of portraits of his friend the artist Zhang Daqian, who like Lang fled mainland China after the Communist victory in 1949 and eventually settled in Taiwan. Lang was a master of composite photography who used combination printing and other darkroom techniques to create images that resonate with brush-and-ink landscape painting in terms of compositional structure, subjectivity, and mood. Liu argues that emulation was for Lang an inventive and critical intervention, a response to his strong belief that “photography is hampered by its mechanical nature,” as well as the sociopolitical reality of his displacement.

The conversation between the photography historian Gao Chu and the photographer Fu Yu continues the idea of creative dialogue between friends. As readers, we are invited to “eavesdrop” on a conversation concerning photographic manipulation in China. Three iconic photographs of Mao Zedong serve as a prompt. “Faking situations can’t be blamed on photography,” says Fu. “Ever since the invention of photography, if you choose to believe photographs depict reality, it suggests you don’t understand photography very well or that you’re gullible.” Those involved in the manipulation of photographs had a high level of technical skill and created idealized versions of reality based on an understanding of the elevating function of photography. “Photography,” he concludes, “is no more authentic than is painting or memory.”

In the book Red Flag Studio: Debates on Photography in China, 1956–1959 (Chinese edition, 2009; revised, 2014), reviewed here by Yi Gu, Jin Yongquan provides a much-needed analysis of socialist-era press photography based on in-depth case studies. As head of the photography department at The China Youth Daily, Jin had access to archives that are normally near impossible for researchers to see. His revelation of the complexities of press photography in China, Gu observes, encourages us to rethink many of the generalized claims not only for Chinese photography but also for Cold War visuality in general.

A determination to uncover new material also lies at the heart of Wang Yong’s book Coming from the Village to Take Photos (Chinese edition, 2014). Over the course of three years (2011–14), Wang interviewed twenty-four people from villages in Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Henan. His interview with Li Xinchang, an entrepreneurial painter of photo-studio backdrops from Ancailou in Shandong, is translated here by Claire M. Roberts. Painted backdrops hold a never-ending fascination for Li: “[T]hrough the photographer’s lens,” he says, one is transported “into a dreamlike realm, ensuring that hopes are realized, that beautiful dreams come true.”

Chen Shuxia interviews the pioneering conceptual photographer Xu Zhuo (b. 1947) to examine key works created between 1979 and 1981 and establish details of their production. Xu worked for the National Art Museum of China, where he was responsible for photographing exhibitions and artworks. Bored with straight photography, Xu made good use of the museum’s well-equipped darkroom to experiment with multiple-exposure and do-it-yourself techniques to create a striking body of art.

The advent of digital photography and image manipulation software such as Photoshop has been a boon for art photographers and netizens. Jiang Jiehong employs the political rhetoric of the “China Dream” to examine the work of contemporary photographic artists who have responded to the rapid economic development and urban transformation of China, and Lee Wing Ki analyses the creation of derivative works and the rise of participatory propaganda in response to the Umbrella protest movement in Hong Kong in 2014.

One book review takes us to Japan; in another we travel to India. Tessa Hite reviews the exhibition (and catalogue) In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11, held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (April 5–July 12, 2015). The exhibition, curated by Anne Havinga, senior curator of photographs, and Anne Nishimura Morse, curator of Japanese art, comprised the work of 17 artists who record or reflect on the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and the subsequent tsunami, which led to failures at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.

Ajay Sinha reviews Deepali Dewan and Deborah Hutton’s recent publication Raja Deen Dayal: Artist Photographer in 19th-Century India (New Delhi: The Alkazi Collection of Photography; Ahmedabad in Association with Mapin Publishing, 2013). In his review of one of South Asia’s most important nineteenth-century photographers Sinha concludes: “How much did Dayal manipulate his photographs? We know that he and his technicians retouched negatives and colored photographs. But in an unusual image, the Nizam on horseback clearly looks like a cut-out. Did Dayal use combination printing, or photomontage? In the end, this brilliant publication leaves us with a lingering thought that there is more to this artist-photographer that still remains hidden in the dark.”

How can the discussion of practices in Asia enrich, confirm, or challenge our understanding of photographic manipulation? The authors in this special issue respond by constructing alternative archives that focus on local discourses about photography and draw on oral-history accounts. From Lang Jingshan and Zhang Daqian’s subtle play with intermediality to backdrop-painter Li Xinchang’s passionate call for the fantastic, the cases here highlight the central place of manipulation in photography and yet the very different genealogies, rationales, and rhetorics through which photographic manipulation is embraced.


    1. Patricia D. Leighten calls this type of photography “overtly manipulated.” See “Critical Attitudes toward Overtly Manipulated Photography in the 20th Century,” in Art Journal (XXXVII/2 Winter 1977–78): 133.return to text

    2. Mia Fineman, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 2012). See the introductory text on the inside front jacket of the catalogue. return to text

    3. Karen Strassler, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010); Ajay Sinha, “Notes on a Painting of a Painted Photograph,” Trans Asia Photography Review 3, no. 2 (2013); Deepali Dewan, Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs: Towards a Transcultural History of Photography (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum Press, 2012).return to text