Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

All Photographs Lie

I recently received one of those semi-viral emails containing a selection of photographs. The introductory comment caught my eye:

These are NOT PhotoShopped... Imagine seeing any one of these WOW!

I looked down through the collection and guess what? Every single one of the photos had been "Photoshopped." I find it strange that anyone would even think that any published photograph had not been manipulated in some way either by Adobe Photoshop or in some other program. A photograph is a representation of a reality created by the individual photographer not reality. One of the most renowned photographers of our time, Ansel Adams, spent a huge amount of time in his darkroom manipulating his images through dodging and burning to create the iconic photos we see today. There is no pretense that what is seen in an Ansel Adams print is "reality" however that is defined. See "Ansel Adams, and Photography Before Photoshop."

From a genealogical standpoint, photographs are not objects to be admired for their artistic content, but merely windows into the past. Unfortunately, genealogists are just as subject to making mistakes with photographs as they are with any of the other myriad details of our ancestors. I have my own example in a daguerrotype that has been widely circulated on the Internet and is claimed to be a representation of my 3rd Great-grandfather when it is historically impossible for it to be one.

I am referring to multiple levels where photographs depart from reality. At one level, the issue is whether or not the photograph represents an actual event that could have been witnessed by another individual present at the time the photographer made the image. The second level, and the one most important to genealogists, is whether or not the image has been accurately identified and understood.

For example, the statement above suggests that a witness present at the time the various photographs were taken, would have "seen" what the photographer say and that what was "seen" is represented in the photograph. I can assure anyone that my own personal experience in taking tens of thousands of photographs leads me to believe that it is impossible to witness a photograph. No other person can see what the photographer is "seeing" at the time a photograph is taken, no matter how casual and inexpert the photograph may be. But in today's world, that individual image, then becomes merely a starting point for the final image. Through the hundreds of tools available to "develop" a photograph, the photographer has infinitely more tools available than were available to some one such as Ansel Adams or any other darkroom photographer.

Many of the image manipulations routinely done to photographs today are not even evident to the vast majority of casual photographers. For example, if you use any one of the "point and shoot" variety of cameras, including a smartphone, the camera itself, using software built into the device, changes the photo in significant ways before you even view it on the LCD screen on the camera. Unless you use a camera that allows you to download your images in RAW format, your camera's computer has already done a significant amount of editing to your images. JPEG images are processed right within the camera. Here is a list of some of the changes made to your images by the programs in the camera:

  • the color is reduced to 8 bits
  • the image is compressed and data is removed
  • the dynamic range is lowered
  • the contrast is increased
  • the image is sharpened
You may not be aware that all this is going on or even understand what I am talking about or care, but you need to know that the camera is changing reality every time you take a photo. Almost all RAW images preserve more of the original information created by the camera but need to be "developed" before they look "real." 

Some of the changes made to photos by JPEG images are minor and usually will go undetected by the casual and uninformed viewer. But I can tell when a photograph has been manipulated 90% or more of the time even without examining the photo closely. 

I am sure you are back to the question that is asked me regularly, why do I care? Basically, some types of photographic manipulation rankle my soul. How about that. If you take my perspective on images and overlay that with the junk photos that come out of genealogy, I have a major problem. For example, here is a series of photos uploaded to's Family Tree Photos program. I have numbered the photos and will give a short explanation of the problems. You may argue that none of these issues impact the historical nature of the photo. There we would be parting company on the issues of manipulating photographs. Here is the series of photos taken from a page on my ancestor George Jarvis. I have copied out each of the photos and given them a number for reference.

George Jarvis #1

George Jarvis #2

George Jarvis #3

George Jarvis #4

George Jarvis #5

George Jarvis #6

George Jarvis #7

George Jarvis #8

George Jarvis #9

George Jarvis #10

George Jarvis #11
Right off the bat, #6 isn't George Jarvis at all and the image is not identified in Family Tree but is offered as an image of George Jarvis. Numbers 1, 2, 3, 10 and 11 are all the same original image but with different croppings and some are copies of copies etc. Numbers 9 and 5 may be the same as 1, 2, 3, 10 and 11 but they are too fuzzy or small for me to tell. Numbers 3 and 7 are the same image but #3 has been right-left switched. As a note, switching the orientation of an image can be easily done in any of the photo manipulation programs and is often an error when scanning or printing negatives. 

By the way, none of these images are "originals." In fact, none of them came from the original negative or print. All of them are copies of copies and not one of them gives even a modicum of reference to the time or place the images were made. That is, except #8 that I scanned from an original print in my collection of photos. 

Something to think about. 

1 comment:

  1. I am corrected by my daughter, Amy Thiriot, the #6 photo is George Jarvis because he is missing an eye from his service in the British Navy.