TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog

Faked War Photos — Then and Now

News agency Reuters is in trouble after getting caught using manipulated images of the recent Middle East conflict supplied to them by a Lebanese photographer. Zombie, a Bay Area blogger (and a photojournalist herself), lists four types of photo fraud:

1. Digitally manipulating images after the photographs have been taken.

2. Photographing scenes staged by Hezbollah and presenting the images as if they were of authentic spontaneous news events.

3. Photographers themselves staging scenes or moving objects, and presenting photos of the set-ups as if they were naturally occurring.

4. Giving false or misleading captions to otherwise real photos that were taken at a different time or place.

All these types of frauds have been with us since the invention of the camera. As an article on photojournalism reminds us: “As a machine, the camera faithfully and unemotionally records a moment in time. But a machine is only as truthful as the hands that guide it.” Although early photographers lacked Photoshop, they quickly discovered ways to alter the “truth” of what the camera saw. Photographers, then as now, realized that a dramatic or arresting photograph sold much better than one that merely represented reality.

Thus, one of the most well known photos of the Civil War, purporting to show a dead Confederate sharpshooter at Devil’s Den at Gettysburg, has been recognized as a fake. This photo would fall under Category 3 — the photographer, Alexander Gardner, dragged the body (who was probably an ordinary infantryman) into position behind the wall of stones and used a prop rifle, which shows up in several other photos. Whatever his ethics, Gardner’s compositional sense was impeccable. The Sharpshooter quickly became one of the iconic images not only of Gettysburg but of the war as well, and no trip to the battlefield was complete without a trip to his “den.” The only problem was that Gardner had used the same “sharpshooter” for another photo earlier, but no one figured this out until Frederic Ray (no relation) wrote about in Civil War Times in 1961.


William Frassanito expanded on this later, showing several more frauds, including another one of Category 4 (false captions). In Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, published just after the war, Gardner included two plates taken (by Timothy O’Sullivan) at Gettysburg, one of Union and another of Confederate dead. Frassanito showed that these were in fact the same group of Union dead, photographed from different angles.

Even though their efforts were analog, Category 1 frauds (image manipulation) abounded as well. One of the most hilarious was the imposition of Abraham Lincoln’s head on the body of John C. Calhoun for a full-length portrait. In another case a missing member of Sherman’s staff was added after fact to a group portrait. Staged scenes (Category 2) scenes from army life were common as well, caused at least in part by slowness of the films, which inhibited spontaneity.

Anyone wanting to take a closer look should visit the Library of Congress web site “Does the Camera Ever Lie?“, which looks at some of the Civil War photo frauds in detail. One observation there is just as true now as it was then:

Sometimes, the most effective means of elevating one’s cause while demeaning the other was to create a scene — by posing bodies — and then draft a dramatic narrative to accompany the picture.





3 responses to “Faked War Photos — Then and Now”

  1. […] There’s an excellent web site devoted to this sort of fakery, The Museum of Hoaxes. Photo fakery started as soon as the camera was invented (one of the photos dates from 1840), although digital photography and new tools like PhotoShop have made it much easier. Some time ago I made another post about some other fakes including the famous photo of the sharpshooter at Devil’s Den. […]

  2. […] mentioned the subject of faked photographs before, something that started about the same time as the invention of the camera. The real kings of […]

  3. peter Avatar

    amazing ,,with all the dead a slimy journalist has to fake a photo
    scum then scum now

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *