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ca. 1923
High-Pressure Hijinks
A soldier appears to be lifted in the air by the pressure from a water hose. The source of this photo is uncertain.
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1921
The Nest of a Fatu-Liva
An image of square eggs satirically proves that the camera never lies.
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April 1920
Stotham, Massachusetts: The Town That Didn’t Exist
Weyerhauser Mills issued a series of architectural brochures, which included an issue about the classic, early-American architecture of Stotham, Massachusetts. The church shown above was said to be the meeting house of the Stotham Congregational Society. However, Stotham didn't exist. It was a fictional town created as a way to provide a coherent theme to some photos the editor had felt were "too good to be wasted."
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Taken in 1919; altered ca. 1967
Trotsky Vanishes
Leon Trotsky is not in this picture, but he was in the original version of it — standing beside Lenin. The photo was taken on Nov. 7, 1919. It showed Soviet party leaders celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution in Red Square. But after Trotsky fell out of political favor, Soviet censors attempted to purge all evidence of his existence, which included removing him from photos such as this one.
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1917-1920
The Cottingley Fairies
Two young girls used paper cutouts to create a series of images of "fairies" while playing in the garden of a Cottingley village home. Photographic experts examined the pictures and declared them genuine. Spiritualists promoted them as proof of the existence of supernatural creatures, and despite criticism by skeptics, the pictures became among the most widely recognized photos in the world. It was only decades later, in the late 1970s, that the photos were definitively debunked.
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December 1913
Ocean Execution
The New York American ran this photo, claiming that the parents of the children had been killed by Mexican soldiers. It said, "The children were driven into the water, forced to hold their hands above their heads, and shot in the back." This was a case of false captioning. The picture was actually an innocent snapshot taken by a holidaygoer in British Honduras. The children had been playing in the waves and raised their arms in order to make a better picture.
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1912
Roosevelt Rides A Moose
Roosevelt ran for President in 1912 as the candidate of the Progressive Party, popularly known as the "Bull Moose Party." This image of Roosevelt appearing to ride a moose ran in the New York Tribune several months before the election. It was intended as a humorous photo fake depicting the "Race for the White House." In the 21st Century this image has circulated widely online, where many people have mistaken it for a photo of a real-life scene, which it is not.
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1911
Cat Drinks From a Bottle
Unfortunately there's not a lot of information on where this photo comes from. It's listed on the website of the French National Library as having been created in 1911 by the "Agence Rol." photo agency. It's an amusing example of early twentieth-century photo fakery. Included in the same series are photos titled "cat peers through binoculars" and "cat looks through a telescope."
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1911
The Melon Party
A postcard created by Alfred Stanley Johnson of Waupun, Wisconsin. In order to create the illusion of a children's party featuring a giant watermelon, Johnson made the children pose while holding a wooden prop. He then cut and pasted a picture of a watermelon slice into the picture to create the finished postcard. In order to create this postcard of children eating a giant watermelon, photographer Alfred Stanley Johnson used wooden props.
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1909-1910
William ‘Dad’ Martin’s Freak Postcards
Martin made a fortune selling "freak" postcards that featured midwesterners interacting with oversized animals and vegetables.
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1906
Pacific Sea Monster
A group of men show off a sea serpent that washed up on the beach at Ballard, Washington. However, the "sea serpent" looks suspiciously like the trunk of a tree.
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ca. 1900
A Bear and its Hunters
A humorous example of a staged scene — a bear joins its hunters for a friendly group photo, somewhere in the Utah wilderness.
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September 1896
The Sympsychograph
David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, published an article in Popular Science Monthly announcing the discovery of a new form of photography, "Sympsychography," that allowed mental images to be made visible on a photographic plate. This photo, he said, was an example. It was a psychic projection of "a cat in its real essence." He intended his article as a joke, but was surprised when many took it seriously.
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1895
A Man’s Portrait Retouched
In their 1895 work Photography: Artistic and Scientific, authors Robert Johnson and Arthur Brunel Chatwood offered an example of how retouching could improve a portrait. They also defended the practice, writing: "that judicious retouching is a very great advantage we have no doubt whatever; it is an absolute necessity, in our opinion, in order to obtain the best result, which is admittedly the object of all art."
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1894
Mammoth Potato of Loveland
Colorado farmer Joseph Swan created this amusing photo (with help from a local photographer) as a tongue-in-cheek ad to show off his potato-growing skills. But copies of the photo began to circulate, and soon it was being reprinted in magazines as a supposedly real photo, causing Swan to receive hundreds of letters from people seeking seeds from his "mammoth potato" so they could grow their own. This is a very early example of a "viral" fake photo.
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ca. 1889
The Silent City
Alaskan prospector Dick Willoughby claimed this was a photo of a "silent city" mirage visible from Muir Glacier in southeastern Alaska. The "silent city" was supposedly the reflection of a real city thousands of miles away in Russia. Willoughby sold thousands of copies of this photo and even took people on guided tours to see the mirage. But the photo was actually a blurry shot of Bristol, England that he had creatively recaptioned. The "silent city" mirage didn't exist.
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ca. 1888
The Rope Trick
A young lady poses on a swing in a photographer's studio. Except, she isn't really on a swing. 19th-century photographers needed subjects to remain stationary to get the proper focus and exposure. So swinging back and forth was out of the question. The swing was actually a prop available from a catalog. The ropes remained rigid and were not attached to anything above.
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December 1867
Dickens in America
An early example of how a celebrity's appearance could be tidied up in the darkroom. The portrait of Dickens on the right was taken in 1861. But during Dickens' 1867 tour of the U.S., the Matthew Brady studio used darkroom techniques to improve the photo, producing the portrait on the left, which they sold to the public, promising that it showed "Mr. Dickens just as he is in his readings."
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