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.
A Ulysses S. Grant Composite Fooled Historians For Generations
The image of General Ulysses S. Grant standing proudly astride his horse in front of a Union camp is one of the most iconic of the Civil War - and it’s also a complete forgery. Instead of capturing a real moment in Grant’s campaign, the photo is instead a clever composite of three different images, only one of which actually contained Grant at all.
Though the photo was purported to be taken during the siege of Richmond in 1864, it’s actually an earlier image of Grant pasted onto the head of a different general on a horse and then superimposed over a photo of the Union camp. The forgery fooled historians for generations and the deception wasn’t discovered until 2007, more than a century after it was supposedly taken.
Leon Trotsky Was Disappeared By Stalin In More Ways Than One
At one point, Leon Trotsky looked like the heir apparent to Vladimir Lenin - until Joseph Stalin made him disappear in more ways than one. Not only did Stalin run Trotsky out of the party and out of the country in the late ‘20s - not to mention having him slain a decade later - he also took pains to have Trotsky removed from the history books, as in this photograph which initially depicted Trotsky at a Lenin speech.
By altering the image, from which Lev Borisovich Kamenev was also removed, Stalin allowed himself to continue building his regime upon the legacy of Lenin without having to pay homage to Lenin’s ideological compatriots.
The Canadian Prime Minister Airbrushed His Way Into Alone Time With The Queen
Canadians are known for their polite and easy-going nature, which makes Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s decision to cut King George VI out of a photograph so surprising. In the original snapshot, King can be seen laughing alongside George and Queen Elizabeth II against a beautiful Banff backdrop, but the version published by the Canadian government painted George out so it would look like the Prime Minister was charming the queen on his own.
Known for his campaign for Canadian autonomy from the British Crown, this would not be the only time that King acted out against the royal family. The goal in this case, however, had nothing to do with sovereignty; King simply used this image on the posters for his next election campaign.
National Geographic’s Most Famous Cover Is A Phony
The February 1982 cover of National Geographic is one of the magazine’s most famous - and also their deepest shame. The editorial staff decided that Gordon Gahan’s original picture of the pyramids, which is gorgeous in its own right, didn’t fit nicely enough within the bounds of their cover. They ultimately decided to manipulate the images so the pyramids would sit closer together, and they certainly heard about it.
While editor Wilbur E. Garrett initially defended the decision as little more than a change of perspective, the public was not buying it and the magazine’s reputation was damaged. National Geographic later claimed the alteration was a mistake and pledged never to do it again.