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7 Photographic Tricks, Hoaxes, and Fads Before Photoshop

This is the second installment in a short series of articles on photo manipulation in the days before computers. The first explained how photo retouching worked before Photoshop.

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

 

3. DECAPITATION

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)

 

4. TWO-HEADED PORTRAITS

Trick photograph of man with two heads (1901). Image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

 
Like a photograph showing a man playing cards with himself, a double-headed portrait could be easily created with the use of a duplicator. W. Butcher and Sons even sold a camera with a built-in duplicator, which they advertised with the image of a two-headed woman.

Ad for "Craven" camera featuring two-headed woman. Image credit:Trick Photography: A Handbook, 1906

 

5. PERSON IN A BOTTLE

Man in bottle. Image credit: Trick Photography: A Handbook (1906)

 
“One of the most amusing tricks is to produce the photograph of a bottle in which stands a human being,” columnist Richard Penlake wrote in the February 1909 issue of Photographic Topics. Penlake was not alone in thinking so. In 1897, a book about stage magic and photographic illusions instructed readers how to achieve what the author called “the most curious illusion of all” by masking a negative for double exposure, with the person and the bottle photographed in sequence front of a black background.

“How did the boy get into the bottle!” Image credit: Frank Grafton, The Guide to Nature (1914)

 

6. TURN A PERSON INTO A STATUE

“Cabinet card of a bust of a young woman, c.1895” by Bond & Co. Image credit: State Library of South Australia on Flickr // CC BY 2.0

 
One odd trend involved transforming a person into a statue by etching and retouching the portrait negative. To capture the most stone-like photo, The Year-Book of Photography and Photographic News Almanac advised in 1885, “The hair must of course be powdered, and doubtless a powder puff applied to the face is advantageous to give the portrait its alabaster appearance.” The subject would then be photographed posing behind a pedestal or a piece of cardboard painted to look like a pedestal. Alternately, the photographer could layer a negative of a pedestal over the negative of the person to achieve a similar effect before scraping off the undesirable parts of the image.

Woman into statue, before and after. Image credit: Trick Photography: A Handbook (1906)

 
While women are the subjects in most examples I’ve found of this trend, the occasional man was also game to see himself in statue form. 

 

7. PORTRAIT AS A MUMMY

Strommeyer & Heymann cabinet card (circa 1885). Image credit: josefnovak33’s Flickr

 
In the late 19th century, European expatriate photographers in Cairo began to offer novelty portraits with the subject posed in a sarcophagus with only his or her face showing. New York World reported in 1899 that every “enterprising” Cairo photographer produced these portraits “for his American patrons,” as “The mummy pictures are considered graceful and appropriate souvenirs of a trip to Egypt to present on returning to the friends at home.” But Americans weren’t the only ones eager for these souvenirs: The Archduke Franz Ferdinand (yes, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand) posed as a mummy during his 1896 trip to Egypt. 

Portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand seemingly by Heymann & Co. (1896) // Image credit: Courtesy Artstetten Castle, Lower Austria

 
According to British and American media coverage of the trend, photographers in Cairo used actual sarcophagi to create the portraits, “a hole sufficiently large for the face to show through having previously been cut in the richly-decorated monumental case,” reported the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star in 1899. The paper noted, however, that “Ingenious photographers vary the picture by obtaining a photograph of a mummy,” and some likely used prop versions of the cases. Once the trend reached New York—thanks to the influence of a wealthy society lady named Mrs. James P. Kernochan, who popularized the idea in 1899 after a trip to Cairo—photographers would either superimpose the subject’s face onto a photo of the mummy, or pose sitters inside a life-size cutout of a sarcophagus. Models of the sphinx were also popular. 

James Deering and Abby Deering Howe, c.1880s, taken in Cairo, seemingly by Heymann & Co. // Image credit: Courtesy Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Archives, Miami, Florida

 
Mummy pictures trended in two waves, one in the 1890s and one around 1908. The first wave popularized sarcophagus pictures in both Paris and New York, with the New York World reporting that young women were “finding amusement in replying to requests from amorous swains for their photographs by presenting them with a mummy picture. […] The feelings of the lover may be imagined when he is unexpectedly confronted with the features of his beloved enshrouded in the antique habiliments of death.” In 1908, the trend experienced a resurgence in Egypt and London, with young women supporting the fad in Britain as they had in New York a decade earlier. After all, according to The Philadelphia Enquirer, “[T]he coarse lines of the mummy case and the crude hieroglyphics thereon, serve to accentuate the pretty lines of the girl’s face.” 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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