Photoshopping in the 1940s - Palmerston North to North Africa - originally posted in PhotographyMatters.com, October 2008.
This is a photograph of my uncle Douglas Ralph Gilberd (known as Ralph), my father’s brother, who was killed in action in August 1942 at the battle of El Alamein. I believe he succumbed to gangrene after being severly injured by a land mine. Unfortunately, antibiotics were not available in time, but they were in use shortly afterwards.
This photograph had been around the house for a long time, and I unearthed it to take to a family reunion we had over Labour weekend. I admit, it had me fooled. I thought it had been taken in the North African desert.
But my observant wife, Denise, noticed this photo (below) in another family member’s collection. It looks to have been taken in the front garden of my grandparents’ Palmerston North home when Ralph was on leave. Someone may be able to enlighten us as to how the result above was achieved, but I would guess that an enlargement was made from the snapshot negative, then clear cut with a scalpel blade, rephotographed, and the made-up desert background hand-painted in.
The fake looks obvious in hindsight, but if you’re not looking for something (Ralph was in the desert, after all, and vignetting a genuine background to declutter a photo was common practise) you tend not to find it. I wonder if this level of falsification was usual for photographic studios. It may have been something they advertised as a service, or else it was done on special request. It is understandable that my grandparents would want the photo to appear this way, especially after having lost a son.
A lot of alteration of family photos goes on these days, with the most common request being to remove some person who has fallen out of favour. I used to advertise on the Photospace studio website that photos can be digitally restored and retouched, but repeated requests to alter photographs made me uncomfortable. The last straw was somebody asking, “And while you’re on the job, could you straighten her mouth? It’s always bothered me that she had a crooked mouth.”
While these things are usually done in all innocence, they can end up being misleading to later generations who are trying to establish historical information by looking at photographs. A detail such as a mouth being straightened could lead to a mis-identification, for instance. Manipulation of photographs, whether by using computer software or old school methods, is not just an ethical issue for photojournalists and publishers, but for anyone who alters the content of any photograph.
This posting has got a little heavier in tone than I intended, after laughing at myself for being duped by such a low-tech trick. I’ve read so much discussion and seen so many examples of unethical photo manipulation, but this is the first time I’ve directly encountered it, trivial as the example may be.
by james | 28 October, 2008
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