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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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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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davi_deste via eBay

There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

Getty Images

Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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