TAKING THINGS FOR GRANT-ed
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“PHOTOGRAPHERS, ESPECIALLY AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHERS, WILL TELL YOU that the camera cannot lie” wrote a columnist for Lincoln, Nebraska’s Evening News in 1895. “This only proves that photographers, especially amateur photographers, can…for the dry plate can fib as badly as the canvas, on occasion.” All of which is to restate the obvious, that the manipulation of images is as old as images themselves, and that, even when a picture does actually tell the truth, the healthy skepticism persists that tomfoolery, if not actually perpetrated in this particular case, lurks ever nearby.
Faked photos emerged in the nineteenth century as soon as photography itself was out of the cradle, and by the time the world was rounding the corner into the 1900’s, successful hoaxes were perpetrated along two main tracks: profit and propaganda. The very fact that people regarded the camera as an objective machine with no particular axe to grind, a mere recording instrument, if you like, gave credence to outright lies created with a growing variety of tweaking techniques. Propaganda proved an obvious growth medium, as governments attempted to massage the historical record to win hearts and minds, a practice brought to the level of art by both Hitler and Madison Avenue in the century that followed. Likewise, profit loomed large, as companies marketed images that the public wished were real, blurring the line between dreams and documents in the service of sentiment or fantasy.
Both the motive to influence and the desire to cash in converge in this image, one of the best-selling photos of the late 1800’s, which purports to show General U.S. Grant heroically astride his horse surveying a roundup of Confederate prisoners at City Point near Richmond in 1864. Following the death of the pioneering Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, his nephew L.C. Handy came into possession of most of his uncle’s negative masters, and began reproducing them to the custom order of many who had, just a short time before, served in the conflict. The picture is striking, mythic, and an unmitigated fake. In fact, it is not a single picture at all, but a composite that combines Grant’s head (from an original Brady portrait), the body of Major General Alexander McCook, and a third image of the prisoners, who were actually photographed at a separate battle that took place hundreds of miles away from City Point. Handy copyrighted the composite and made a small fortune marketing it.
It took decades for the fraud to be detected, after sleuths discerned that, among other inconsistencies, the officer’s body is that of a one-star general (Grant was a three-star by that time) and that the body markings on his horse do not match those of Cincinnati, Grant’s favored mount in 1864. The point is that today’s photographers certainly have no fewer scruples than did the old masters when it comes to fakery, and that, at least today, we are aware of the tools that can be employed to stretch or scar the truth, and accept photography as an interpretative art, for good or ill, rather than merely a means of documenting events. Caveat emptor.