For our ‘April Fool’ post, we decided not to attempt the creation of a spoof medieval manuscript or late 14th century Scottish printed book, tempting though it was….
Instead, we offer proof that the old adage that ‘the camera never lies’ is not, and never was, true, even before the days of digital wizardry. From the earliest days of photography skilled (and sometime not-so-skilled) practitioners of the art have attempted to fool the viewer, and to use the lens to distort reality. The airbrush may be a modern tool, but the concept is as old as photography itself. Below are some fine examples from our collection of photographic deceit, humorous compositions and “Photoshopping” before Photoshop. We hope you get a laugh out of these (we sure did!)!
Even in its earliest days there was an element of subterfuge about the photograph. The famous St Andrews ‘Fishergate’ photographs (1847) of Robert Adamson and D.O. Hill portray a sense of motion and activity, largely through the movement of the young woman walking across the street with her basket: but, of course, due to the long exposure needed to make this image she must have stood stock-still for at least a minute or two to allow the slow exposure to catch her without blurring.
Dr John Adamson, the famous pioneer of photography, used a potato and his sense of humour to create this ‘portrait’, and set up a mock battle using specimens from the Museum of the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society, c. 1855-60.
One hopes, too, that this touching anonymous portrayal of Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair (1786-1861), Provost of St Andrews, with his ‘sick baby’ friend, William Macdonald (1797-1875), Professor of Civil and Natural History in the University of St Andrews, is not entirely what it seems.
Even the way in which a photograph is presented can make a difference to its interpretation: the two copies of this 1860s portrait of an unknown woman by John Adamson, are tilted in their frame to differing degrees before having been cropped and pasted in to their albums, giving quite different impressions of the mood and attitude of the poser. The copy in Album 8 (left) was almost certainly inserted into the album by John Adamson himself.
These early examples show the willingness of the photographer to bend the truth through manipulation of the subject, but manipulation of the image itself was also not unknown, even in these early days.
This ‘stereographic’ portrait of John Adamson, taken in 1845 either by himself or by his younger brother Robert, is in fact not a true stereograph, but is two similar, but not identical negatives mounted together and printed in an effort to create the stereographic effect when viewed through an appropriate lens.
Thomas Rodger, a commercially successful pupil of John Adamson, was not beyond portraying his brother John and his father as fish-wives in 1860, or his father as a village idiot. Working mechanically to create composite prints as early as 1856, Rodger also created this group portraying 4 generations of Thomas Rodgers, from individual portraits.
Working mainly in the first half of the 20th century, the Scottish landscape photographer, Robert Moyes Adam, was a master of the darkroom. The difficulty of reproducing many of the photographs he published of the Scottish mountains lies in the fact that a photographer is not always presented with the most aesthetic skies when the weather is so unpredictable. In order to do justice to the drama or majesty of the landscape he would therefore sometimes combine the printing of separate negatives of foreground and sky in the dark-room, in order to make a single finished composite print, often with dramatic results.
A good example of his technical artistry is this stunning photograph of a celtic cross at Lochaline on the Sound of Mull taken by R.M. Adam in 1919, where the original photograph of the cross has been blended with the startling sky (in reverse orientation) from different photograph taken near Inveraray four years earlier to produce a completely new image.
Moving into a more commercial arena, the thriving tourist photography business of James Valentine & Sons made full use of manipulative processes to maximise the profitability and breadth of coverage of their photographic stock.
A stock photograph of the Forth Rail Bridge, first registered in 1908, is here seen with a much later steam train crossing it.
Several different versions of this highly posed ‘kailyard’ scene, all from the same negative, exist within the Valentine archive. They purport to be a ‘Highland Washing’ photographed at Balquhidder in 1878 (although these are actors, who are to be found in other scenes and other locations).
Quite why Valentines felt the need to draw this out-of-proportion and strangely coloured bus onto a traditional picture of the famous ‘Devil’s Elbow’ in Glenshee, is not clear!
And finally, these two images, taken from the same negative, show a photograph of the Albert Institute in Dundee (now the McManus Gallery), first registered for use in 1880, and then as it was ‘re-born’ and re-registered 12 years later. Such examples of re-use, updating and ‘re-imagining’ of images is common within the Valentine collection, with some very curious results.
So in the world of photography, as in the rest of life – especially at the beginning of April – one should never believe that all is as it seems.