Henry Beach and the Art of Deception

by | February 2023, Photography

Henry Beach photograph from Adirondack Experience

The first version of Photoshop was issued in 1990, but the art and craft of manipulating photographs has existed since the invention of photography. Two or more images might be captured on the same negative. A man’s mustache or beard might be trimmed or a woman outfitted with earrings on negatives with a fine paintbrush. The cheeks of tintype portraits might be dabbed with a touch of blush. Photographs were manipulated for political or ideological reasons. Sometimes doctored versions were contrived just for fun.

Henry M. Beach (1863–1943), a provincial with roots in Watson, Lewis County, was one of the Adirondacks’ most prolific photographers. Real photo postcards (real photographs printed on postcard stock) were his principal stock-in-trade. These cards were popular between 1900 and World War I and were the purview of photographers who covered lightly peopled regions, those that held little allure for commercial postcard operators catering to large markets. Documenting the visual minutiae of otherwise unchronicled local districts, they constitute a bona fide genre of American folk art.

Beach published thousands of real photo postcards, often in print runs of no more than a hundred cards. He is recognized as the only early Adirondack photographer to have employed his talents at manipulating images. Using previously captured view photographs along with print letters, maps, calendar pages and artificial flowers, he laid out montages on flat surfaces, many of them advertisements for his own or others’ businesses, then re-photographed them to create new images. He also crafted amusing amalgams with no basis in reality by superimposing over-scaled photographic cutouts on single-image exterior backgrounds. Known as “exaggeration,” “freak” or “tall-tale” postcards, these represent an intriguing subgenre of real photo postcards.

While exaggeration photo artists in other parts of the country played with depictions of giant ears of corn or hulking hogs and chickens, Beach’s repertory of fake photographic props was drawn from subjects common to the Adirondacks: supersized fish, approachable bears, immense logs. He also fashioned a number of crowd scenes, filling village and open landscapes with people and vehicles. Most of his tall-tale representations were intentionally crude, designed to provoke belly laughs, like the image above.

Svenson’s book Adirondack Photographers, 1850–1950 (Syracuse University Press), a biographical dictionary of the region’s photographers, will be published May 2023.


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