On Reality – Part 3a (Update) – Famous Faked Photos and How to Make Them
January 9, 2007
Here are some of the photographer’s secrets that many of us don’t really want to talk about. It all started in Part 3 of this series ( follow this link to the original Part 3 if you like) which contained seven photographs. All except one image were either staged or faked in some manner. I thought maybe you’d like some background information on each of them. Here are the stories of each of them. The accounts of each may differ – after all, we are dealing with legends.
Originally published August 18th, 2006, this post is still very popular. I decided to upgrade it a bit and republish it. For one thing, I added the photos I discuss so you don’t have to go back and forth to Part 3 of the series to view and read as you had to earlier.
The first picture shows the execution of a prisoner. It is not a fake – the man really died after being shot in the head by South Vietnam Lt. Colonel Ngyen Ngoc Loan, Saigon Chief of Police. The picture was taken by Eddie Adams in 1968’s Saigon. So what is wrong? The execution was originally to take place inside a nearby building. The Colonel decided that the photographers needed more drama, better angles and light, not to mention keeping the inside of the building clean. The execution was staged on the street with a careful setup of the photo opp. Apparently it was important to the Colonel how his profile was displayed. Mr. Loan later became a General, was evacuated to the US where eventually he died in peace. Mr. Adams won a Pulitzer Price. The prisoner simply died and disappeared. His wife never found out what happened to him. No trial and no one seem to know the exact crime committed.
The second picture (two actually) is the root of the 2006 summer Hajj journalism crisis. Here is the “After” version paired with the “Before”, original version. The ethics are thoroughly discussed in Part 3. No need to add anything except my view is that the whole thing was quite overblown. I still think the original version is far superior to the fake one. Not that either is that great.
The third photograph shows Bigfoot, or something, laboring away in the snow. There are dozens of Bigfoot pictures just as there are photos of UFOs, Loch Ness monsters and other legends. These pictures invoke strong passions in some people. TV Documentaries are made. Museums devoted to the subject pop up. Self proclaimed experts make speeches. Souvenir shops make money. Photographically, all or most can easily be explained as faked, staged or both. They may even be “real” enough to be explainable by natural events. This photographic trend goes far back. We will examine that in more detail later. To me, this picture may simply show a heavily clad man climbing a snowy hill, shot by a focus challenged photographer.
Picture number four is one of the most famous of all times. It is – rightly so – a living symbol of courage, triumph, the American spirit and victory over evil. It certainly is a phenomenal image – taken by Joe Rosenthal on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in February of 1945. It earned him a Pulitzer Price and everlasting fame, even though he never seemed to use his fame – he was a staff photographer in San Francisco after the war for a long time. Three of the six Marines died shortly after the flag raising. The memory of all, in particular the three survivors, gained some more fame in the recent Clint Eastwood film, following the John Wayne movie of 1949. So what is the controversy? Here is what Wikipedia has to say:
“Following the flag raising, Rosenthal sent his film to Guam to be developed and printed. Upon seeing it, AP photo editor John Bodkin exclaimed “Here’s one for all time!” and immediately radiophotoed the image to the AP headquarters in New York at seven A.M., Eastern War Time. The photograph was picked up off the wire very quickly by hundreds of newspapers. It “was distributed by Associated Press within seventeen and one-half hours after Rosenthal shot it—an astonishingly fast turnaround time in those days.”
However, the photo was not without controversy. Following the second flag raising, Rosenthal had the Marines of Easy Company pose for a group shot, which he called the “gung-ho” shot. This was also documented by Bill Genaust. A few days after the picture was taken, back on Guam, Rosenthal was asked if he had posed the photo. Thinking the questioner was referring to the ‘gung-ho’ picture, he replied “Sure.”
After that, Robert Sherrod, a Time-Life correspondent, told his editors in New York that Rosenthal had staged the flag-raising photo. TIME’s radio show, ‘Time Views the News’, broadcast a report, charging that “Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted… Like most photographers (he) could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion.” As a result of this report, Rosenthal has repeatedly been accused of having staged the picture, or covering up the first flag raising.
One New York Times book reviewer even went so far as to suggest revoking his Pulitzer Prize. For the decades that have followed, Rosenthal has repeatedly and vociferously refuted claims that the flag raising was staged. “I don’t think it is in me to do much more of this sort of thing… I don’t know how to get across to anybody what 50 years of constant repetition means.” Genaust’s film also shows the claim that the flag raising was staged to be erroneous.”
Besides, there are many “versions” of the photo: here are two of them – the lower one above is the same as that shown in Part 3; the upper one published in the Wikipedia article quoted above. Now we are back to the “Reality” thing. Apart from the general controversy, which of these versions represent “Reality”? Both of them are manipulated as you can clearly see, one by a liberal dose of dodging to brighten the center, the other much darker and less detailed..
What about picture number five? Robert Capa was one of the most famous ever of war photographers. He covered just about every war from the Spanish civil war to the early part of the Vietnam wars. His D-day photos, most of which were destroyed in a London lab, are some of the most harrowing war pictures ever shot. They famously inspired Steven Spielberg in the very grim opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Capa was killed by a Vietnamese land mine in 1954. Yes, there was a Vietnam War that early.
Now, examining the picture, it looks real enough. The soldier is shot in the head. Part of his brain is shattered as shown behind his head. This is clearly a dead man. The trouble is that some sources report the man being well and alive after the allegedly staged picture was taken. In fact, it is said he thoroughly enjoyed his evening meal but was killed shortly thereafter. Whatever the truth of this photograph, no one disputes Capa was one of the greatest war photographers of all time. Personally, I think the photo is real.
Mr. Capa led quite an interesting life. He always stayed in hotels – never had a home – and was constantly broke. He was known to misplace his Leicas, requiring the delivery of new ones from suspicious editors. For a while, he was the hero of Hollywood but went back to war. He was one of the founding fathers of the legendary Magnum Photo Agency, still the premier photographer society and agency of the World. Check out their superb essays in New York Times.
Let’s continue to photograph six. It is from 1840, France. This is a rather tragicomic affair. The apparently dead person is the photographer himself, Mr. Hippolyte Bayard. Magically, he could take his own picture after dying by drowning. He also managed to drag his dead body out of the river into the pose in the picture. Even more astonishing, he managed to send the death picture to his antagonists with a suicide note attached to the back. It seems Mr. Bayard was jealous of more successful inventors of photographic processes and made a strong stand. Incidentally, if the picture is indicative of his photographic process – we did not miss much.
To my astonishment, doing the research on this particular photo, I found that death hoaxes like this are quite common. Most might be somewhat more believable than Mr. Bayard’s pioneering effort but faking death happens all the time. Live and learn.
Photo number seven dates to the American Civil War. The war coincided with photographers becoming sufficiently mobile to do field work. Maybe some other time I’ll get into the history of photography during the time. I guarantee it is both hilarious – the tragedy of the war notwithstanding – and indicative how a new craft can go berserk in pursuit of fame and money. There is an incredible amount of faked, staged, altered photographs from this era. It’s not just an American phenomena – the same thing happened in the Crimean War. Alexander Gardner is the photographer of record of this Confederate soldier killed in the Gettysburg battle of 1863. The photograph is quite famous – in fact, it is viewed as one of the best to come out of the Civil War. Yet it is a fake. Here are some quotes:
“Of course, I had seen the photo of the dead “sharpshooter” lying before his stone wall between the large boulders many times over the years. It really is doubtless the greatest photo shot of a dead soldier to come down to us from the Civil War. And it has become more known since it was “discovered” to be a fake. Until 1995, I wasn’t aware of a stereo view that also existed showing the same scene. The four photos taken down the hill were new to me also, and I was, of course, in awe that the photographers had moved the body to make them.”
“Frassanito further wrote that the body was first photographed DOWN the hill and then, on inspiration, the photographer’s carried the body some 75-yards UP the hill to make the much more interesting composition at what would become known as “The Sharpshooter’s Home”. Source: here
And now a little bonus of magic and wizardly since you all seems to like the subject:
Many of you probably have seen this fake photograph in various political campaigns. The event never happened. The photo is a composite of two photos taken separately of each of the two equally famous individuals. The two photos involved in the composite were taken about a year apart. The picture is a complete fake – they never met or were at the rally simultaneously or if all..
Perhaps more than the other photos in this essay, this image raises a real ethical issue. Where is the true limit? Darkening the sky over Beirut? Moving a soldier into a more photogenic position? Faking one’s death in a deranged manner? Or is an utterly cynical fraud and smear campaign such as this photo beyond any reasonable limit? You be the judge.
Here is another cynical example of the irresistible urge to make money on other people’s agony. This, of course, is a sample of the gross, myriads of fake pictures from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, killing hundreds of thousands. As you can easily tell, the fake is not very well done. For instance, no one is watching, in despair, the huge wave seemingly feet away. In fact, no one seems very concerned about their allegedly imminent death. And, oddly, every one must be on the beach, yet dressed for anything but the beach.
Incidentally, there are lots of fake 9/11 “photos” floating around, equally disgusting. There’d appear there is enough hardship, real pictures available without having to produce these hacks.
The next two are a bit lighter. How can you avoid monsters and UFOs in a discussion such as this? There is nothing complicated about these two samples. They are, of course, fakes.
Maybe you ask yourself – how do you do things like this? There is the old and the new way with many variations on pretty simple schemes. The old way relied mostly on darkroom work. The simplest form was to manipulate a print from a negative by dodging, burning or masking. Dodging means you reduce the light reaching the photo paper while exposing the negative on the paper. You can use a mask, a piece of paper or your hand to lessen the exposure of some part of the image. The result is that the print is “bleached” where ever you reduced exposure. The “bleaching” can go as far as to totally remove the original image from the print. Burning is the opposite of dodging; you add extra exposure to some part of the print, again by using various tools such as your hands covering the areas you don’t want to burn. The result is a print that is darker in the areas you burnt. Again, you can totally remove the original image, or part thereof, if you so desire.
There are many ways to manipulate the final print by using more than one negative, thereby combining several images into one final print. There are so many ways of doing this that it’s hard to summarize any particular darkroom technique. An example might be that you use one negative for half the exposure of the photo paper and another negative for the second half of the exposure. Then you have a print combining, equally, the two negatives. That may not be all that exiting a print but when you combine masks, dodging and burning, then you have a set of very powerful tolls available to you.
Yet another technique is to produce a new negative from one or more others. You can, for instance, produce a print using several negatives as I just described. Then you can take a photo of that print and now you have a new negative which you continue to manipulate in some fashion.
Other tools in your arsenal include special chemicals, both in developing the negative and in processing the print. Again, there are countless ways to proceed. A simple example is the “old fashioned” sepia print – it is simply a regular print processed with a special chemical.
There are many types of photo paper with different characteristics available. In black and white processing there are filters for higher and lower contrast as well as different intensity or flavoring of the print, such as warm colored or cool colored flavors. Color processing adds some more tools, for instance, the ability to change the mix of differently colored lights by using color filters in the printing process.
Let’s not forget the camera itself. There are countless ways to manipulate the image. You can use hundreds of filters. You fit exposure and depth of field to your perception of what you want as a final image.
Next, years ago we entered the digital photo world. Tools such as Photoshop have been around for many years. In its basic form, Photoshop does all of what I described above as dark room techniques. Burning, dodging, masking, combining images and applying filters are essential features of Photoshop. Then Photoshop adds many more tools for convenience and making the workflow from the camera to the print shop easier.
You’d probably be surprised to know there are not that many things (within reason) that Photoshop can do that you cannot do in an old fashioned darkroom. The main difference is that it is usually quicker to do it in Photoshop. But the flip side is that few Photoshop users can beat a master printer’s dark room work. There still, in my mind, is a trade off between the “simplicity” of digital processing versus the incredible quality of a proper darkroom print.
Does all of this sound like esoteric geek speech by a pro photographer? Well, I am a pro photographer and there is not a single thing discussed above that I have not practiced. In fact, just about all pro photographers practice these methods and use the same tools. Perhaps the foremost practitioner of these “tricks” was Ansel Adams. He even wrote three books on the subject.
Practically all professional photographs that you have seen are manipulated in some fashion. So why are some viewed as “fakes” and others as “art”? The distinction is subjective. What is art to one person is rubbish or fake to another. It really boils down to the perceived intention of the photographer. Is the photographer manipulating you for some utilitarian reason or is he/she demonstrating artistic insight on some divine level? Most of the pictures above are pretty obvious manipulations with little or no artistic value or intention. Those are the simple ones. The “fine art” scene is not a simple one.
What about the remaining two picture sequences above? Both are from the nineteen thirties and the USSR. It’s easy to see that the picture on the right seems to lack the image of some person. You got to hand it to the Russians. They were real good at purging millions and they were pretty skilled at erasing any evidence the purged people even had existed at some point. That included manipulating photographs to reduce quesions on an embarrsing level for some obscure reason.
Finally, to the left is a little satiric fake of my own. Who can tell what Cheney’s legs really look like? Considering his priorities do not include being part of real shooting War while being a bit careless with shotguns in a friendly manner.
So here you are – knowing, perhaps a bit more about photographic history and how fakes and stages are done. They seem to be driven by a mix of tragedy, comedy, greed and stupidity. Coming up, we’ll look at more examples and reasons for these manipulations. So please stay tuned. Leave comments as you see fit – I really appreciate them.