You know the old cliché: The camera doesn’t lie. But that wasn’t true even before computers made it possible to alter reality with the click of a mouse. As soon as photography came onto the scene—offering an unprecedented opportunity to record the world—people figured out how to use this new technology to distort the world for fun and profit. Read on to discover some favorite Photographic Tricks from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
1. SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY
|“John K. Hallowell and fifteen other faces” by S.W. Fallis (1901) // Image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division|
In 1862, a jewelry engraver in Boston named William H. Mumler “discovered” his ability to photograph the spirits of dead people. Thanks to the rise of Spiritualism—a religious movement premised on the belief that the dead communicate with the living—and the high death toll of the Civil War, Mumler soon found his “talent” in high demand. Clients would come to his studio to be photographed, and when the portrait was developed, alongside the client would be the spirit of a deceased relative, friend, or other person with whom the sitter felt a strong affinity. Even the spirits of deceased famous people, like Beethoven, were known to be captured on film. A number of prominent living people also sat for Mumler, including Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Wilson (Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president), and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
|Bronson Murray by William H. Mumler (1862-1875) // Image credit: Getty Open Content Program|
Mumler was accused of fraud by the State of New York in 1869. His trial was covered on the front page of Harper’s Weekly and in newspapers and magazines around the country, largely ruining his reputation, though he was ultimately acquitted. But by the time of Mumler’s trial, a host of other “spirit photographers” had taken up the trade in the United States and Europe, and the practice retained its believers through the 1920s, experiencing a resurgence in popularity following World War I. Meanwhile, books and magazines about photography offered instructions for non-believers on how to produce their own “ghost” photographs.
|“Room Shot with Ghost Photography.” Image credit: A. Parzer-Mühlbacher via Photographisches Unterhaltungsbuch (1905)|
2. DOUBLING (OR TRIPLING, OR QUADRUPLING …)
|Little girl taking her own picture. Image credit: R.H. Anthony via Trick Photography: A Handbook (1906)|
One of the simplest and most popular photographic tricks from the 19th century was the doppelgänger portrait. Photographers could splice together multiple negatives to show the same person several times in a single photograph, but that was a rather crude method. Most photographers used a duplicator—a device that allowed for one section of a negative to be exposed while the rest remained unexposed. Popular Mechanics explained, “The principle of the duplicator is this: Placed over the lens, with the straight edge of the opening perpendicular, it cuts off from use the greater part of the lens. The part that is left throws an image on the sensitive plate which is just about half of what is actually in front of the camera, within the field of view. As the duplicator can be reversed by revolving it, it is obvious that both halves of the view can be taken, one at a time, and that during the exposure of one half, nothing is being taken in the other half.” This technique often left a telltale vertical line along the center of the image—a fuzzy stripe separating the two exposures.
The possibilities offered by the duplicator were endless. Camera Magazine enthused, “Men can be shown boxing, fencing, arguing, etc.; and, if careful note were taken of the subject in the two poses, it would be possible to give a view of a man actually stabbing himself, with the knife apparently buried in his chest.”
|Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography (1897)|
|Victor Bracq via Photographischer Zeitvertreib (1903)|
“Those who object—as the ladies probably will—to such realistic pictures, may find entertainment in portraying games of chess or cards in duplicate,” Camera Magazine suggested.
|“Playing chess with himself, and looking on at the game." Image credit: Col. A.C.M. Pennington via Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin (1887)|
For whatever reason, a popular setup for doppelgänger portraits involved the subject pulling him- or herself in a wheelbarrow.
|“Frank Bonds wheeling himself in wheelbarrow." Image credit: Ford Hand (1909) via University of Washington Libraries on Flickr|
Mirrors also offered an incredibly simple means of repeating the same person’s image within a picture. Two mirrors set at a 75-degree angle produced five views of the sitter in a single portrait—without any retouching necessary.
|Mirror portrait of young girl. Image credit: V. Whitbeck via oakenroad on Flickr // CC BY 2.0|
|Trick photo, decapitated man with bloody knife holding his head, circa 1875. Image credit: George Eastman House via Flickr|
According to Mia Fineman, an assistant curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victorian and Edwardian enthusiasm for faux decapitation was likely inspired by stage magic. During her research for a 2012 exhibit on photo manipulation before computers, Fineman told PBS, “I discovered a connection between trick photography and stage magic, which was the most popular form of mass entertainment in the late 19th century. Stage magicians often performed illusions featuring decapitation and ‘talking heads,’ and this motif was quickly picked up by photographers, both professional and amateur. Fake decapitation was the LOLcats of the 19th century.”
|“Dr. H.S. Lynn, magician” by Davies & Co., Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (1863). Image credit: State Library of Victoria, Australia|
Performing in Australia in 1863, the British magician Dr. H.S. Lynn—then going by the name Professor Washington Simmons—used the above photograph to advertise his illusion the “Lost Head.” He accomplished this illusion by performing in front of a black background and covering with black cloth whatever he wanted to appear invisible to the audience. Called Black Art, this stage magic technique worked the same way as black background photography, which in the 1890s became the favored method for producing many photographic tricks, including decapitations.
|“The Head in the Hat” by A. Parzer-Mühlbacher via Photographisches Unterhaltungsbuch (1905)|
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