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Famous Hoax Photographs and How They Were Faked

Updated November 6, 2017 197.9k views24 items

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.

  • 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.

  • "Death in the Air" Utilized Models Built by a Hollywood Prop Designer

    "Death in the Air" Utilized Models Built by a Hollywood Prop Designer
    Photo: Wesley David Archer

    In 1933, war widow Gladys Cockburn-Lange contacted publishers with a fascinating document. She gave them the war diary of her dead husband, complete with stunning images of World War I planes in action. The book Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot was a hit, especially influential because so few photographs of World War I aerial combat existed.

    How They Did It: Gladys Cockburn-Lange couldn’t have had a more British sounding name if she chose it herself. Oh wait, she did. Gladys was actually Betty Archer, the wife of Wesley David Archer, a Hollywood-employed model builder. Wesley Archer built the models in the photograph and superimposed them over aerial photographs to create the hoax. The National Air and Space Museum finally exposed the hoax in the early 1980s.

  • The Famous Faces in Ada Emma Deane's Spirit Photography Led to Her Downfall

    The Famous Faces in Ada Emma Deane's Spirit Photography Led to Her Downfall
    Photo: Ada Emma Deane / Columbia University

    At the height of her success, Ada Emma Deane’s spirit photographs incited bidding wars from national newspapers for the rights to publish them. An unassuming cleaning lady before she got her hands on a camera, Deane’s claims to fame were the disembodied heads that appeared in the pictures that she took. She created a famous series of commemorative photos of World War I Armistice day and by the fourth year, newspapers fought for the exclusive rights.

    How They Did It: Deane’s first giveaway was her requirement that she receive photographic plates in advance of the photo shoot. In 1924, the same newspaper that bought her Armistice Day picture also debunked her hoax. They revealed that the floating heads in her picture were not dead soldiers but were very much alive, including the faces of some well-known athletes. She maintained her innocence, claiming that she if she were faking it, she wouldn’t be so stupid as to use such recognizable faces.