The Potential of a Photograph: A look at the influence of photo manipulation

                For me, the readings by Errol Morris this week  which discussed photo manipulation, its power and the lengthy process of detecting it made me realize the power of photography and visual stimulation today. Whether doctored or not, images dictate the way we think about historical events.  Images that have worked their way into our everyday life become part of a narrative that we create in understanding these events.  Morris captures this idea when he says that although we have the knowledge that an image or information given to us is fake, it is often the information that sticks in our memories and not the tags attached to it.[1]  I had to think on this.

               A few weeks ago in the class on the Holocaust that I GSA for, our professor showed us a very famous image of Hitler.  In the photograph, Hitler is at Field Marshall’s Hall in Munich, Germany, celebrating the outbreak of WWI.[2]

Hitler at a World War I RallyThis photo is constantly debated as to whether is has been doctored or not.
Hitler at a World War I Rally.  This photo is constantly debated as to whether is has been doctored or not.  It is credited to Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffman.

               Having studied the Holocaust for quite a while now, this photograph had been shown to me time and time again in high school, during my undergrad and now during my graduate studies as a GSA.  In other cases, the photo had been used to show students how Hitler had supported and been excited about the prospect of World War I.  In this class, I was introduced to the idea that although highly debated- this photo is often considered to be a fraud.  Not only did Hitler not sport this iconic mustache style in 1914, but photographs from different angles do not show him, and the hand in the photograph is odd and unidentified.  Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back for me however was the fact that the photograph is credited to Heinrich Hoffman who later became Hitler’s personal photographer but who did not know him at the time.[3]  It seems a little too coincidental that this man who would later become highly important in shaping how Germany saw Hitler, captured him so clearly in a large sea of people and that this would be an image used by Hitler to champion himself as an enthusiastic proponent of World War I and the pursuit of glory for Germany.  The question of whether this photo is manipulated or not is highly debated on a number of online forums, including but not limited to: The Local, The Wehrmacht Awards and the Axis History Forum.  If doing nothing else, the photograph has certainly sparked our attention, interest and discussion!

               Still, did this possible photo manipulation change my perception of Hitler’s response to World War I?  Not initially!  Although I was fascinated by the possible doctoring, until writing this blog I hadn’t realized that I still unquestionably saw Hitler as a proponent for World War I.  This is not to say that he in fact was not but to point out that I really had not questioned it any further.  The image had stuck and not the tag of manipulation attached to it.  In essence, despite this photo being a possible fraud, it had shaped my narration and ideas surrounding the history of Adolph Hitler and his rise in Germany.

               This situation was not unique to Hitler either.  A number of dictators and celebrities for that matter had images altered to either eliminate their enemies or present an image to the public of their wanted political platform.  You can see some of the most interesting and famous examples in this Time Magazine photo essay.[4]  Maybe with the exception of the images of Oprah and Martha Stewart (depending on who you are of course), the images in this essay have shaped historical narrative and are now seen to be false.  From the mundane alterations like the removal of the fence post in that famous Kent State Massacre photograph to the removal of Leon Trotsky in the portrait of Lenin during the October Revolution, manipulations are done for different reasons and change the way we see an image.  Has your opinion of any of these events changed?

Photo taken from
Photo taken from
Photo taken from
Photo taken from

               Photo manipulation is not always used to influence the way history is perceived.  Often, as Maria Popova points out in her article Faking It: A Visual History of 150 Years of Photo Manipulation Before Photoshop, photo manipulation is used to make a comment or artistic statement about society or political issues.[5]  Just as a cartoon can do so, manipulated image allows one to see a different view point of the world.  This can be seen in the photo from her article (provided by the Metropolitan Museum) showing an over sized German soldier holding smaller enemy soldiers in his hands.  To me, this photograph, created (not taken) in 1914 by a German artist represents a feeling of German supremacy going into the war whereby Germany will ultimately exert a great deal of superiority over its challengers.  By changing the size elements of the photograph as well as bringing in a number of various photographs into one, the artist has created a whole new way to think about the photograph.

I took this photograph from the article website: but it was provided there by the Metropolitan Museum.
I took this photograph from the article website: but it was provided there by the Metropolitan Museum.

               How have photographs (altered or not) changed your idea of history?  Are there particular photographs that you associate with historical events?  To me, photographs capture the essence of an event (particularly when taken candidly and expressing great emotion).  After reading more about photo manipulation however, I will have to think hard about associating an entire event with one or a couple of images!  Not only do these not tell the whole story- they may not tell a true story!  To end, I thought I would leave you with one of my favorite iconic photographs which was taken in 1967 on a March to the Pentagon by Bernie Boston.[6]  It characterizes my ideas of the 1960s peace movement and always comes to mind when I think of this decade.

Flower Power, Bernie Boston, 1967.
Flower Power, Bernie Boston, 1967.

[1] Errol Morris, “Photography as a Weapon,” The New York Times Opinion Pages, August 11 2008, The New York Times Company, October 20th, 2013.

[2] Karen Priestman, “Lecture,” Hist. 3427E, Western University lecture, 7 Oct. 2013.

[3] Priestman, “Lecture.”

[4] “The Top Ten Doctored Photos,” Time Photos, Time, Inc., October 22nd, 2013.

[5] Maria Popova, “Faking It: A Visual History of 150 Years of Image Manipulation Before Photoshop,” Brain Pickings, October 21st, 2013.

[6] David Montgomery, “Flowers, Guns and an Iconic Snapshot,”, March 18, 2007, The Washington Post Company, October 23rd, 2013.


3 thoughts on “The Potential of a Photograph: A look at the influence of photo manipulation

  1. Very interesting blog post Gabby, makes you really wonder how many photographs have been altered to obtain a certain means. I think we definitely need to be careful with any photographs that are meant to be viewed by the public, whether that may be for a political campaign or to sell a magazine. Our society has become very visual, in that if we see it, whether in a picture or on television then it must be true. Instead though we need to be able to stay open minded and think critically when taking in images. What was really interesting for me from your blog, is that they have been altering photographs for years. I have issues today in dealing with altering photographs for particular projects, very crazy to think they knew how to many years ago.

    Thinking more about it though, doctoring pictures began even before cameras and photographs, in that of Jacques Louis David’s painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps. (To see the painting: Napoleon is pictured easily in control of his rearing horse on a wintery cliff of the Alps, while in actual fact he rode a mule on the trek. He is also pointing the way in the painting, but in reality was not leading his troops. His clothing displays the French colours, while a beautiful cape is wrapped around him blowing in the wind; he actually would have been wearing a great coat. David has also included Bonaparte’s name etched in the rocks along with the other great leaders that crossed the Alps; Hannibal and Karolus Magnus (Charles the Great). This painting was used as propaganda for Napoleon’s campaigns as it highlights his power as a great ruler. When I visited Versailles, I was very overwhelmed by the power that was conveyed in what was Napoleon’s throne room, through the many paintings of him, including him jewelled sitting on a throne, him amongst the clouds of heaven, and a very large painting of him crowning his wife Josephine.

  2. Cool post Gabby! I really like your use of the Kent State Massacre photos as it is quite shocking what a difference it makes when the fence post is removed. You can actually focus on the agony that is occurring front and center rather than wonder what is sticking out of her head.
    To answer your question, a photo that has always struck me as incredibly political and moving is the photo of the sole man standing in front of the row of tanks during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.
    Here is the uncropped image depicting the scene:
    Here is the cropped image that changes the scope of the image and magnifies, in my opinion, the importance and the strength of the individual:
    Until I read this week’s articles I never really looked again at the photo and what a big change in perspective the cropping tool can have on one photograph. This photo places an individual, a real person, in the forefront where huge machines are bearing down on him. The photo provides the viewer with a shock factor, thinking that the tank a few seconds later would have crushed the man right there in the street. However, upon further investigation you know that is not true. The photo depicts someone standing up for something they believe in, and showing no fear in the terrible situation. When studying the larger uncropped image, it is quite difficult to have that same revolutionary feeling because it looks as if the man standing in front of 20 plus tanks has no chance. I think that photo manipulation, in this case specifically, allowed for the strength of the Tiananmen Square Protests to be captured in one single photo. It represents conflict between the government and the people and how incredible demonstrations of bravery can be produced even in the face of adversity.
    If you want to learn more about the TSM I have provided a link to a short article summarizing the event:

  3. Like everyone else, I loved the post. Images taken out of context certainly have the potential to change the historical narrative. I suppose they’re quite effective since many people are visual learners and we see photos as concrete evidence. This problem though is not just limited to photographs though. As public historians we ought to be aware of stories circulating around Facebook and Wikipedia. A disturbing number of these stories purporting to be true take a lot of quotes and half-truths and throw them together to fulfil an agenda.

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