Famous Hoax Photographs and How They Were Faked

Since the dawn of Photoshop, image altering has been a controversial topic among professional photographers, their subjects, and their public audiences alike. Transforming images to blur the line between fact and fiction has become a common occurrence in all realms of entertainment and news around the world, from tweaking a model’s look on a magazine cover to inserting realistic aliens and monsters into blockbuster films to altering photos of missile launches to create threatening propaganda.

However, what many people don’t realize is that the falsification of photographs started long before Photoshop made it as easy as the click of a mouse. Faked photographs have been around almost as long as photography itself. The invention of photography presented a new medium for hoaxers and manipulators to transform images to fit their needs. Whether a hoaxer’s intention was hurtful or humorous, the new technology of photography presented an unprecedented opportunity: a way to create images that looked so real that people had no choice but to trust them.

From its inception, photography and hoaxery went hand-in-hand, like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Since the 19th century, people have been manipulating images, combining negatives, staging scenes, and building dummies to trick audiences into believing that what they see in the image is real. Here’s a list of some of the sneakiest, scariest, and silliest photographic hoaxes throughout history and how the hoaxers created these famous images.

  • Two Little Girls Drew the Cottingley Fairies So They Wouldn't Get Punished

    Two Little Girls Drew the Cottingley Fairies So They Wouldn't Get Punished
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    One of the most infamous photographic hoaxes in history all started because a little girl didn’t want to get in trouble. In 1917, Frances Griffith returned from a brook with wet feet and wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable punishment. When her mother asked her what happened, Frances told her mother that she went to see the fairies. In a show of familial solidarity, Frances's cousin Elsie backed her up and agreed that fairies played down by the water.

    With the adults obviously dubious, the girls took a camera to the brook and came back with proof – pictures of both girls with fairies and gnomes. After both girls’ moms shared the photos around, the pictures sparked a public phenomenon. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and a famous spiritualism supporter, weighed in on the photographs, believing them to be genuine proof of humanity’s ability to commune with the spirit world.

    How They Did It: Almost 60 years later, Frances and Elsie finally admitted that their photos were fakes. Elsie had art training and drew the figures on paper. The girls fixed the drawings to hat pins and stuck them in the ground for the photographs. Then, they destroyed the evidence in the brook. A hoax so simple that a child could do it. 

  • The Bluff Creek Bigfoot Was Just a Man in a Suit, Obviously

    The Bluff Creek Bigfoot Was Just a Man in a Suit, Obviously
    Photo: Patterson-Gimlin Film / via Wikipedia

    The Big Foot spotted at Bluff Creek in 1967 is the most famous sighting of the infamous creature ever recorded on film. Two men, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, trekked into the California wilderness in search of the monster, with a rented camera and plans to make a documentary about their experience. Wouldn’t you know it, they spotted a female Big Foot striding through the forest.

    Patterson managed to capture footage of the creature before she disappeared back into the trees. Patterson died of cancer a few years later and went to his grave stating that the whole story was true.

    How They Did It: The Big Foot in the video looks like a costume purchased straight off a Halloween store rack, and it basically was. After a TV special about the case aired in 1998, a man named Bob Heironimus came forward and admitted that he had been the man in the suit. Patterson hired him to play Big Foot in a short film that he planned to sell. A costume designer named Phillip Morris also stated that he was the one who sold Patterson the suit. His company Morris Costumes is now a massive costume manufacturer that supplies Halloween costumes across America. 

  • The Loch Ness Monster Was Actually a Much Less Dangerous Sea Creature - A Toy Submarine

    The Loch Ness Monster Was Actually a Much Less Dangerous Sea Creature - A Toy Submarine
    Photo: Daily Mail / via Wikipedia

    The modern fervor over the Loch Ness Monster came to a head with a photo taken in 1934. Known as the Surgeon’s Photo, the most famous image of Nessie was taken by British surgeon Colonel Robert Wilson. It shows a creature with a long neck rising out of the water. For more than 50 years, the picture stirred up a fervor about what swam beneath the surface of the Loch.

    How They Did It: The picture stood as a testament to the existence of the marine creature until 1994, when a man named Christian Spurling confessed to his involvement in the hoax. The Daily Mail previously hired Spurling’s step-father, Marmaduke Weatherell, to find the Loch Ness monster and Weatherell felt betrayed when they debunked what he found. So he set out on a plot of revenge straight out of an episode of Scooby Doo: he and Spurling constructed a model out of a toy submarine from Woolworth’s with a sculpted head attachment and photographed it. They sent the photo to Wilson, whose pedigree made him a trustworthy Nessie spotter, and Loch Ness was never the same again. 

  • Hippolyte Bayard's Anger Drove Him to Create History's First Fake Photograph

    Hippolyte Bayard's Anger Drove Him to Create History's First Fake Photograph
    Photo: HippolyteBayard / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Louis Daguerre has historically been credited with the invention of photography. A man named Hyppolite Bayard disagreed, however, in a very dramatic way. In 1840, an image emerged of a lifeless man with the following caption:

    The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government, which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life...!

    How They Did It: Bayard simply staged the scene and wrote a misleading caption. The photo is influential as the first ever faked photograph, so at least Bayard got into the history books for something…

  • The Falling Soldier Wasn't Dying, He Was Acting

    The Falling Soldier Wasn't Dying, He Was Acting
    Photo: Cornell Capa / via Wikipedia

    In 1936, photographer Robert Capa released an image that encapsulated the horror of the Spanish Civil War and went on to become one of the most famous war photographs in history. It also helped kickstart Capa’s career as a famous photographer. The image captures a Spanish soldier, Federico Borrell Garcia, as he takes a fatal shot. 

    How They Did It: The story of Capa’s photos started to unravel when other images in the same series were released. Academics studied these photos next to this most famous version and determined that Capa did not snap these images near Cerro Muriano in Andalusia as he claimed. Instead, the photographs were taken near Espejo, a place that the war didn’t reach until after Capa published the photographs.

  • William Mumler's Ghostly Subjects Included Abraham Lincoln

    William Mumler's Ghostly Subjects Included Abraham Lincoln
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikipedia

    A jewelry engraver named William Mumler was the first enterprising mind to combine the emerging fields of spiritualism and photography for profit. Mumler’s hobby for photography paid off one day in the early 1860s when he sat for a self-portrait. He discovered a ghostly figure standing behind him as he developed the photo, which he originally believed to be the remnants of a previous image. He showed the photo to his friends on a lark and, based on their credulous responses, went into business as a spirit photographer soon after.

    Mumler’s fame grew so large that his photographs appeared on the cover of the national magazine Harper’s Weekly. Although his contemporaries were skeptical, no photographer could find any evidence that Mumler faked his ghostly photo shoots. Despite his detractors, he had at least one very famous fan. In what would be her last photograph, Mary Todd Lincoln sat for a photo with him, Abraham Lincoln’s ghost visible behind her.

    How They Did It: Skeptical photographers both then and now ascribe Mumler’s spooky shots to one of two methods. One possibility is double printing, when the subject and the spirit appear in two different negatives that the photographer later combines. The other is double exposure, when the person designated as the ghost leaves the picture mid-exposure to produce a transparent, ghostly effect. Mumler ensured that no one would ever know for sure when he destroyed all his negatives shortly before his death.