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How reliable is the photograph as a historical source?

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Concepts and Methods. Avril Smith 14/11/01 How reliable is the photograph as a historical source? In his posthumously published book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes 'It is the advent of the Photograph ... which divides the history of the world'. His faith in the photograph is so strong that he also claims that now this form of evidence is available 'the past is as certain as the present'. 1 In attempting to answer the question 'How reliable is the photograph as a historical source', this faith must inevitably be challenged. It will be necessary to look at how photographs have been used by historians and to consider what they have contributed to our understanding of the past. The question of whether it was possible to manipulate images in the early days and if there were other methods of falsification which would undermine the veracity of photographic evidence, must be asked. Some well known 'frauds' will be examined and the impact of developing technology on our ability to trust what we see, will be examined. I will touch briefly on one or two instances where the use of a particular photograph has been vindicated by later evidence, and areas of historical study that may seem less open to deception will be considered. ...read more.


What Conan Doyle was not aware of, was that Elsie, the older girl was an artist and had spent some time working for a photographer.8 As photo-technology has advanced, more and more methods have become available to the person intent on fraud. Whether this is the con-man wanting to cash in on the gullibility of the public or the propagandist whose cause is not sufficiently strong to stand alone, the camera has provided a means to an end. Even quite innocent deceptions add to the case against the reliability of the photograph as a historical source. O.R. Croy describes how to photograph live frogs swimming apparently in a pond, without the necessity for snorkelling equipment, in his book Croys Camera Trickery. One simply places them in a glass tank with the appropriate scene pasted on the back! 9 In an article about the deceptions practiced by wildlife photographers, Kenneth Brower describes the many 'fake' representations produced by apparently trustworthy organisations. Here he recalls Alan Roots' account of a colleagues' attempt to capture a typical safari scene for the cover of Life magazine, 'the image had begun in the mind of one of the magazine's editors. By a kind of redactional clairvoyance this editor, seated comfortably at his desk in Manhattan, had seen it all clearly: leopard and its kill in thorn tree, branches framing a setting sun. ...read more.


One photomanipulation website boasts 'From simply adding a person's head into a group photo to putting your 80 year old grandmother on a snowboard, we're the masters of photomanipulation.' They also claim to be able to give your photographs the appearance of an original watercolour, oil or antique painting or pencil or charcoal sketch'.14 Also, whilst the subject of a photograph may appear to be clear, the viewer cannot know what has been left out or how the scene may have appeared from another angle. The event depicted may have been posed or shown out of context, as photographs used by the Nazis often were. This is not to say that photographs are worthless, or should never be used. In much the same way as with oral history, whilst they may not be seen to provide hard, concrete data, they convey a sense of the past in a way that a written record may not. But the question asks how reliable the photograph is as a historical source and the term 'reliable' equates to 'that can be relied on' and as has been shown, there are relatively few instances where the information gleaned from a photograph can be absolutely relied on. Photographs can and must be used by historians, but with caution and with the proviso that seeing should not always be believing. ...read more.

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