The Camera Never Lies (But As For What Happens In The Darkroom)

As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1 approaches, we look at how photo manipulation created one of the conflict's most powerful images
Frank Hurley's 'The morning after the first battle of Paschendaele'
Source: National Library of Australia; file: la.pic-an24574133
Given the enormity of the events, does it matter that what we are seeing has been crafted in a darkroom?

It’s one of the most striking images from the First World War, a scene of utter devastation. In the foreground, an enormous crater provokes several thoughts – about the staggering scale of the casualties, the countless shells fired, and the heaviest rain for 30 years which, combined with the shelling, churned the soil to mud so deep that men and horses drowned in it.

On the left a blockhouse still stands and a group of four men survey the area. In the centre of the photo, a number of Australian infantry lie wounded on duckboards. Such is the scale of destruction that a solitary tree stump calls to mind images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You would be forgiven for thinking that this was the aftermath of an atomic bomb.

And then, in the top half of the photo, brilliant beams of light stream through the clouds, illuminating the battlefield.     

Except that the so-called “crepuscular rays” depicted in Frank Hurley’s The morning after the first battle of Passchendaele are a fiction. As documented in Library of Dreams: Treasures from the National Library of Australia (National Library of Australia, 2011), that celestial light – which contributes so much to the powerfully dramatic effect – is from a photo Hurley took the previous month. In other words, what we’re looking at is a composite.

An adventurer, filmmaker, writer and the first official photographer to the Australian Imperial Forces in the First World War, Hurley (1885-1962) took the view that the manipulation of the image captured the reality of battle. Given the enormity of the events he was documenting, as the world prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 2014, does it matter that what we are seeing has been crafted in a darkroom?

The Vanishing CommissarPhoto manipulation is, of course, as old as photography itself. The Fourandsix website has a fascinating gallery (‘Photo Tampering throughout History’) devoted to the subject.

Kate WinsletOne of the gallery's most famous examples is shown on the left, in which we see the former NKVD leader, Nikolai Yezhov ('The Vanishing Commissar'), airbrushed out of Soviet history on Stalin's orders, following Yezhov's execution in 1940. 

In a more recent example from fashion photography, a heavily retouched image of Kate Winslet (shown on the right) appeared on the front cover of the February 2003 issue of GQ magazine. Although the actress had approved the original photos, she was not consulted about their subsequent digital manipulation prior to publication. "The retouching is excessive", Winslet commented at the time. "I do not look like that and more importantly I don't desire to look like that." 

If you’d like to find out more about the manipulation of images in the twentieth century, you might be interested in ‘The Camera Never Lies’. Covering both of the above examples and more, this free six-week course is developed by Royal Holloway, University of London, and offered through Coursera.

Watch an introduction to ‘The Camera Never Lies’