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Banner: Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and TrickeryBanner: Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery

Photo Fakes

Often, we think photographs are absolutely true. If it's in a photo, then it must be exactly how it happened, right? Unfortunately, nothing is further from the truth. Photos can be altered. Things can be added, taken away or put together to suit someone's point of view. Many photos that we thought were faithful illustrations of historical events have turned out to be nothing more than staged or altered pictures.

Photograph of soldiers advancing over No Man's Land, 1917

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29th Infantry Battalion advancing over No Man's Land during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917
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Photograph montage of soldiers advancing over No Man's Land, 1917

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Montage of 29th Infantry Battalion advancing over No Man's Land during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917
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This is a series of photographs that were said to have been taken during an attack in the First World War. The photographer, Lieutenant Ivor Castle, even went to great lengths to write about how dangerous it was for him to take these pictures during a combat! After close examination of the photos, we noticed a strange detail -- a soldier was thumbing his nose at the camera. Who would have the time to do that during an attack? Something wasn't right. To see if anything else didn't add up, we examined Castle's negatives of the pictures. And sure enough, more things were odd -- a soldier still had the canvas cover on his gun and there was no smoke! In the printed picture, the gun was missing and smoke was added to create the illusion of battle. With this evidence it was now clear that this photo was a montage and that these pictures had actually been taken during a training exercise and not during combat!

Even when a photo looks perfectly "true to life," a little detective work has to be done before it can be added to Library and Archives Canada's collection. We need to examine the original photograph and negative for clues to see if it has been altered. If possible, we ask the photographer many important questions -- like where, when and with what kind of camera the picture taken? When photos are from the more distant past (and either we don't know who the photographer was or the photographer is dead), we have to read books and articles about the event or the people in the pictures to try and make sure that these are real. Ideally, this investigation is done before the photo is added to our collection, but for some of our older collections the detective work is still ongoing. Sometimes, altered photos are knowingly added to our collection (like the staged photos of the soldiers) because the reason why a photo was faked often reveals a lot about that time period and about our history.

Did you know…?

Photos can be changed by painting on the negative.

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Glossary

montage: a photograph created by putting together two or more negatives on one sheet of paper

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