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“Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” is one of the most compelling photographic exhibits to hit D.C. in years. Some early efforts at manipulation look clumsy to the modern eye, but then again, early viewers were often unsophisticated about how images are constructed; consider an oval-shaped image in which the artist combined the cropped heads of dozens of prominent citizens in 1850s Scotland. As inelegant as some of these manipulations appear, others prove strikingly persuasive, even eerily modern, such as a colorized 1880s image of an old-fashioned French clock. A series of Soviet-era images in which comrades of Stalin disappear with each photographic iteration is chilling; the same technique of erasure is put to more creditable use in the works of Kathy Grove, who carefully excises women from classic photographs as a feminist statement. Ultimately, what viewers of this varied and thoughtful exhibit take home is realization of how special photography is. Because no other artistic medium carries such a promise of factual accuracy, manipulation is never more powerful as when it involves a photograph.

The exhibit is on view 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays–Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays at the National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. (202) 737-4215. nga.gov.