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.
Mussolini’s Equestrian Bravado Photo Removes The Horse Handler
In many ways, Benito Mussolini was the original fascist - he did literally write the book on it, after all. He was also a pioneer in the use of personal branding to strengthen his regime. Fascist Italy was festooned with strong images of Il Duce wherever one looked, and they generally featured Mussolini in his favored pose - chin up and chest out - even if they didn’t always line up with the original compositions.
The photo of Mussolini sitting atop a horse in Tripoli with his sword held proudly in the air certainly matches with the Italian dictator’s general aesthetic, but only thanks to some clever airbrushing. Mussolini had a horse-handler edited out of the image so that it looked like the dictator was actually in command of the animal. One could see this as a powerful metaphor for Mussolini’s reign in general.
The Commissar Vanishes
There may be no more infamous photoshopper in history than Joseph Stalin, who was able to make his opponents vanish in more ways than one. That’s the idea behind “The Commissar Vanishes,” a photograph that originally showed Stalin walking along the waterfront with Nikolai Yezhov - until it was edited to cut Yezhov out completely.
Typically, Stalin put his image manipulators to work whenever he had one of his political enemies - or former allies, like Yezhov - slain or sent to the Gulag. Not satisfied with simply erasing his antagonists from existence, Stalin also sought to erase them from history, hiding his growing body count as if the individuals were never real in the first place.
Stalin Stands Alone
Joseph Stalin’s habit of editing his slain opponents out of photographs is legendary, and few images demonstrate that more clearly than one infamous composition that originally showed Stalin alongside three political allies - then two, then one. In the final edition of the photo, Stalin stands alone.
As Nikolai Antipov, Sergei Kirov, and Nikolai Shvernik each fell out of favor with the Soviet dictator, they were removed from the photo in turn. Out of the three aides originally pictured, two would fall to Stalin as he consolidated his power. Only Shvernik would outlive Stalin.
The final product is so heavily edited that it looks more like a portrait of Stalin than a photograph - yet another example of him literally painting over history.
Valley Of The Shadow Of Deception
“Valley of the Shadow of Death” is one of the earliest notable examples of combat photography - and it’s also an early instance of image manipulation. Taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War, the photo depicts a post-fight roadway strewn with cannonballs. Other pictures snapped by Fenton earlier in the day, however, show a completely clear road.
The veracity of the photo has been debated ever since, with the general conclusion being that someone moved the cannonballs onto the road from the ditch sometime after the fight. Whether the rearranging was done for the purposes of the photo - and whether it was done by Fenton himself - remains a mystery that will likely never be solved.