How reliable is the photograph as a historical source?

In his posthumously published book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes ‘It is the advent of the Photograph … which divides the history of the world’ - How reliable is the photograph as a historical source? introduction. His faith in the photograph is so strong that he also claims that now this form of evidence is available ‘the past is as certain as the present’. 1 In attempting to answer the question ‘How reliable is the photograph as a historical source’, this faith must inevitably be challenged. It will be necessary to look at how photographs have been used by historians and to consider what they have contributed to our understanding of the past.

The question of whether it was possible to manipulate images in the early days and if there were other methods of falsification which would undermine the veracity of photographic evidence, must be asked. Some well known ‘frauds’ will be examined and the impact of developing technology on our ability to trust what we see, will be examined. I will touch briefly on one or two instances where the use of a particular photograph has been vindicated by later evidence, and areas of historical study that may seem less open to deception will be considered. By this stage the conclusion drawn should be fairly obvious.

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The use of photographs has greatly enhanced the study of history since the middle of the 19th century. Early photographs may appear stiff and formal, but they convey a sense of Victorian lifestyles in away that words alone could not do. We may believe that in the early days of photography it was difficult, if not impossible, to manipulate the prints to show something which was not there, or remove something that was, and even where this could be done an expert would detect the alterations easily. So can we say that in those days at least, the photograph was a reliable historical source? Possibly, if the origins of the photograph can be verified and where there would seem to be no gain from dissimulation.

Books such as A Victorian Eyewitness bear testimony to the value of preserving images which would otherwise be lost forever. If we had no photographs of the Crystal Palace (P.H. Delamotte 1854), the tragedy of its destruction would be all the greater.2 And Frank Meadow Sutcliffe’s studies of the Whitby fisherfolk preserve their ‘now vanished way of life’.3 Furthermore, could anyone really visualise ‘inflating buffalo skins to cross a river in the Himalayas’ without Samuel Bourne’s wonderful photograph?

However, the same book provides us with very early evidence of the use of photography to deceive. A photograph of dead ‘rebel’ soldiers from the American civil war taken in 1863 by T.H. O’Sullivan was later proved to actually show Northerners.5 This use of photographs for propaganda purposes was of course famously used by the Nazis in the second World War. Even Barnado was accused of ‘artistic fiction’ when he produced his ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of the waifs and strays he turned into industrious young men and women.

By 1861 Spirit Photography had become a common scam. Many photographers would describe themselves as ‘mediums’ who could make a dead relative appear in photographs of their loved ones. These tricksters became adept at superimposing ghostly images and double exposures on their plates. They were even able to produce a complete apparition. Because the sitter was required to sit for more than a minute, the photographer’s assistant would appear (appropriately dressed) behind the sitter for a few moments, leaving a suitably ghostly image on the finished plate.7 Many other methods were used including introducing dust to the negative, incorporating flash reflection and over exposing the plate.

The famous story of the Cottingley Fairy photographs shows that by 1917 a girl of 16 was able to produce convincing ‘fake’ photographs, good enough to fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and to bewilder the Kodak ‘experts’ of the day. The Cottingley girls were able to maintain their deception until 1983, probably because the ‘trick’ was not in the photographs. The girls had made cut-outs of fairies and attached them to trees with hatpins. What Conan Doyle was not aware of, was that Elsie, the older girl was an artist and had spent some time working for a photographer.

As photo-technology has advanced, more and more methods have become available to the person intent on fraud. Whether this is the con-man wanting to cash in on the gullibility of the public or the propagandist whose cause is not sufficiently strong to stand alone, the camera has provided a means to an end. Even quite innocent deceptions add to the case against the reliability of the photograph as a historical source. O.R. Croy describes how to photograph live frogs swimming apparently in a pond, without the necessity for snorkelling equipment, in his book Croys Camera Trickery. One simply places them in a glass tank with the appropriate scene pasted on the back! 9

In an article about the deceptions practiced by wildlife photographers, Kenneth Brower describes the many ‘fake’ representations produced by apparently trustworthy organisations. Here he recalls Alan Roots’ account of a colleagues’ attempt to capture a typical safari scene for the cover of Life magazine,

‘the image had begun in the mind of one of the magazine’s

editors. By a kind of redactional clairvoyance this editor,

seated comfortably at his desk in Manhattan, had seen it all

clearly: leopard and its kill in thorn tree, branches framing a

setting sun. The photographer set off in quest of this vision,

travelling the East African Savanna for weeks with a captive

leopard, killing antelopes, draping the carcasses in the branches

of various thorn trees, cajoling the leopard to lie proudly on the

‘kill’, a tableau that the photographer shot against a succession

of setting suns’. 10

Brower goes on to point out that no photographer would need to go to so much trouble now. He would just use his Adobe Photoshop to find and manipulate the necessary images.

Bearing all of this damning evidence in mind, is there any area where the photograph might be considered reliable? There are obviously some historical photographs which can be verified by those depicted in them. I remember a past issue of the Radio Times which carried details of the subsequent histories of children photographed celebrating on D. Day. And possibly the most famous war photograph of all time, that of the little, naked Vietnamese girl, fleeing from a napalm bomb has been followed up by a film – ‘Kim’s Story’, detailing her horrific injuries and later life. But where there is no living individual or indisputable supporting evidence to bear out the veracity of a photograph, it would have to be viewed with some caution.

One area where we might have some confidence in the reliability of an image would be where it was taken from the collection of a private individual, who would have probably taken photographs for their own use. In this case, there would be little incentive to deceive and the images might be expected to reflect the lifestyle and locality of the individual from whose collection they came. Marc Bloch points out that we learn far more from evidence that was not intended to inform us,11 than we do from ‘official’ sources, and in the same way we can learn much from personal collections of photographs which were not taken with the intention of presenting historians with evidence. In his book Photographs and Local History, George Oliver makes much of the value of private collections.

However, writing from the standpoint of 1989, his ascertation that ‘with remarkably few exceptions the photograph is a generally reliable and truthful witness, alterations to its image being difficult to effect and easy, on the whole, to detect.’,13 appears a little na�ve to twenty-first century readers. Even so, the photographs in his book demonstrate the value of this medium for the preservation of a memory of the towns and villages of Britain, as they once were and will never be again.

Taking all the evidence considered into account, the conclusion I would have to come to, is that the photograph is not very reliable as a historical source. As time and technology march on, this will become increasingly the case, as even now, it is virtually impossible to detect alterations made to images with the use of digital equipment. One photomanipulation website boasts ‘From simply adding a person’s head into a group photo to putting your 80 year old grandmother on a snowboard, we’re the masters of photomanipulation.’ They also claim to be able to give your photographs the appearance of an original watercolour, oil or antique painting or pencil or charcoal sketch’.

Also, whilst the subject of a photograph may appear to be clear, the viewer cannot know what has been left out or how the scene may have appeared from another angle. The event depicted may have been posed or shown out of context, as photographs used by the Nazis often were. This is not to say that photographs are worthless, or should never be used. In much the same way as with oral history, whilst they may not be seen to provide hard, concrete data, they convey a sense of the past in a way that a written record may not. But the question asks how reliable the photograph is as a historical source and the term ‘reliable’ equates to ‘that can be relied on’ and as has been shown, there are relatively few instances where the information gleaned from a photograph can be absolutely relied on. Photographs can and must be used by historians, but with caution and with the proviso that seeing should not always be believing.

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