In the post-truth era, it’s becoming harder and harder to separate fact from fiction - but history books, and especially the images contained within, are still considered as solid and inarguable as they come. But maybe they shouldn’t be; after all, the list of famous retouched photos and outright staged historical photos is a long one. Some of the most iconic historical pictures have been staged, and although the notion of old photoshopped photos sounds anachronistic, history books are filled with manipulated and forged imagery.
Is there any way to determine the truth? Can we ever truly find out what WWII looked like from the frontlines or how Bonnie and Clyde appeared after their gruesome end? Of course! All it takes is a critical mind and a willingness to check citations in order to find out which historical images are legitimate and which have been edited for one reason or another. The truth is out there - it’s just in the footnotes.
“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” is one of the most inspiring images in the history of the American military, but it’s also a somewhat staged recreation of the initial triumph. Candid photographs of the actual flag-raising reveal a much smaller flag and less heroic posing. Then, photographer Joe Rosenthal got a chance to take it from the top.
Upon conquering the island of Iwo Jima in 1945, after some of the most intense fighting in the entire Pacific Theater, a small flag was raised, and some less-than-thrilling photographs were taken. When Rosenthal heard some higher-ups had ordered the modest flag replaced by a more impressive version, he knew he had a rare opportunity to re-capture history; and this time, the soldiers made sure to do so with suitably gallant flair.
It’s long been debated just how much actual staging and posing Rosenthal did, but he adamantly denied the charges throughout his life.
“Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” has long been passed around as indicative of an era with slacker safety standards - or perhaps an era with tougher people. Instead, it’s actually a demonstration of a societal ill that is all too familiar in the modern world: the power of publicity.
Instead of being a candid snap of workers enjoying a lunch break one September 1932 afternoon, the photo is one of a series of staged shots ordered to promote the building itself, which would one day be known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Other shots included workers tossing a football around or taking naps. The entire thing was a publicity stunt, albeit one that still carried considerable risk, and not truly demonstrative of the daily working conditions in ‘30s New York City.
The photograph of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio over the body of Jeffrey Miller, a protestor who had just been shot by the National Guard at Kent State, is one of the most striking and iconic images of the era. It’s easy to see why, since few photos so perfectly capture the horror of a historical event as clearly as this one does, even in its original form. The seriousness of the subject matter makes it far more acceptable to learn that most versions of the photo passed around have been slightly altered to increase the dignity of the composition.
John Filo’s original photo won the Pulitzer Prize, but it also included an unfortunately placed fencepost directly above Vecchio’s head that gives the whole thing an off-putting vibe. Most reprintings of the image choose to edit out the fencepost to improve the quality of the photo, allowing it to be as impactful as possible without any unnecessary distractions.
The photograph known in English as “Raising a Flag over the Reichstag” is an important - and triumphant - one in the history of the Soviet Union. Most students growing up in the Soviet education system would never get to see the original image though. While the iconic image of Russian soldiers erecting a Soviet flag over the German government building is inspiring under any conditions, certain changes were ordered as a way to “airbrush” history.
In order to stop (well-founded) rumors of Soviet looting from spreading, the photo was edited to remove the multiple wristwatches on the arm of the soldier raising the flag. For further dramatic effect, more smoke was also added to the background, along with a few smaller cosmetic changes that are also difficult to notice even up close. These alterations were performed by the photographer, Yevgeny Khaldei, himself.