Summer intern Hannah Moses discovers some interesting photographs in the digital library collections.
At first it seemed like a routine picture from the Library of Congress. After cataloging dozens of posed photographs of President Roosevelt and his family, this photograph of the new administration’s cabinet didn’t appear to be anything exciting. But then I glanced at William Howard Taft and thought, “Wasn’t Taft a very large man? Why does he seem to be so average in this photograph?” Once I actually looked at the photo, I realized that this photo had obviously been altered.
New Roosevelt Cabinet, 1906. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.
It is clear that the original photographs were taken under different lighting conditions and that they were not resized properly to fit this group photograph. The next photograph proved that Roosevelt and his desk were the basis for the photograph as the cabinet members had been moved around while he stayed still.
Theodore Roosevelt, seated at desk reading, surrounded by cabinet members, 1904. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.
What followed was a series of composite photographs that tried to fit a lot of important people into one spot. Though they look like bad Photoshop jobs, the photographer, Barnett McFee Clinedinst, prized his photographs enough to copyright them. It isn’t like Clinedinst didn’t have other photos. He was considered the official White House photographer for three administrations. Perhaps for this occasion a newspaper needed a photograph of the new Cabinet and the men were too busy to meet with him. Or maybe there were events that he had been unable to photograph, like Roosevelt reading a speech to his Cabinet before sending it to Congress.
Theodore Roosevelt reading his message to the cabinet before sending it to Congress, 1902. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.
Regardless, these photos reminded me that image retouching and photo manipulation are not new concepts. Today we are aware that celebrities’ photographs can be digitally enhanced to create standards of beauty that are humanly unattainable. Yet we do not often think about the fact that photographs have been manipulated ever since the technology to create them has existed. One image forensics company recently compiled a list of famous altered photographs, including a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and a series of fairies that fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
While today’s photographers use digital imaging software to change colors and remove imperfections, photographers in the early 20th century used airbrushes, cutouts, and double exposures to create what their lens did not capture. Seeing these composite photographs of Roosevelt’s cabinet reminded me to view all photos with skepticism. Photographs, like documents and anything else in the historical record, can be altered. Whether we are viewing a photograph from the early 1900s or the early 2000s, we would be wise not to believe it at first glance. While photographs can be deceiving, they also remind us how photography has always been, and always will be, an art form. Thankfully for us, Clinedinst’s photo manipulation skills were such that we can be confident that Roosevelt’s Cabinet never looked like this when they went for a horseback ride en masse.
Roosevelt and his cabinet on horseback, 1906. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
1 Photographicus Baltimorensis, “Barnett McFee Clinedinst, Jr. (1862-1953),” http://19thcenturybaltimore.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/barnett-m-clinedinst/
2 Four and Six, “Photo Tampering Throughout History,” http://www.fourandsix.com/photo-tampering-history/
3 Dario L. M. Sacchi, Franco Agnoli, and Elizabeth F. Lotus, “Changing History: Doctored Photographs Affect Memory for Past Public Events,” Applied Cognitive Psychology 21 (2007): 1005-1022.