Ansel Adams said, “Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.” The question is, should they? A recent photo essay in the New York Times illustrates that photographs have been staged, retouched, and created in the dark room from multiple images since the 19th century. In the era of digital photography altering images is even easier with sophisticated image editing software.
Photographic archives have an increasingly important role to play in maintaining photographic originals, like glass plate negatives, nitrate negatives, safety negatives, multiple versions of prints and raw camera files of digital photographs. When archives have the negatives, proofs, raw files, or different versions of images they can show the public how a photograph actually looked before it was altered.
For example, this photographic proof was taken by the Jeffrey Manufacturing Company, a maker of mining equipment in Columbus, Ohio. The “miners” are pictured with a Jeffrey coal loader. The mine scene was a painted background inside the Jeffrey factory. The photograph, taken in 1918, was used for advertising. Undoubtedly the factory wall was cropped from the picture before it was published. Staging the scene was likely easier than taking photographs in a dark, dirty mine underground.
This image might appear to be an intimate portrait of President William McKinley and First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley.
However, a larger version of the picture reveals that the McKinley’s were at a dinner party in the home Senator Marcus Hanna, a polical ally of McKinley. Hanna is seated at the head of the table. Pictures of famous people were collectible and creating different versions of this image gave the photographer more products to sell.
Many changes to photographs are done for fairly inoccuous reasons such as improving the composition or removing an extraneous object. However, as the New York Times story and examples from the Ohio Historical Society’s collections illustrate, the extraneous objects can be people and the portion of the image that is removed can be an attempt to deliberately obscure the truth of what is pictured. Photographic images should not be viewed with outright skepticism, but should always be carefully analyzed. And photographic archives should be highly valued for the truth that their collections can reveal.
Lisa Wood, Curator for Visual Resources