In a recent article, Photography and the Paranormal, we looked at modern, digital photographic anomalies and how they can appear paranormal, but there are often rational explanations for them. This time I’d like to concentrate on some older, pre-digital photographs. We’re talking about the classic unexplained photos – those that crop up a lot in books and in lists on the ‘net. You may be relieved that this is an area largely free of orbs!
Thing is, we can’t analyse old photos properly if we don’t have access to either the original negatives or photographic prints made directly from them; we’re reliant on reproductions in books or onscreen, which are often poor quality and may have been further tampered with. (Search for a particular photo online and see how varied the copies of it are.) As well, there are reports on the origins of the photos and the stories behind them, but these can be hard to verify since we can’t talk to the people involved. For these reasons, when considering the merits of the photos and genuineness of claims relating to the phenomena they depict, we’re limited to guesswork.
Still, we can apply some of the techniques we’ve learned for evaluating modern digital photos, as only the recording medium has changed (electronic sensor chips rather than light-sensitive chemistry). The optics and other physics of photography that cause photographic anomalies remain the same (in principal if not in scale), as does the psychology of the visual interpretation of the subject matter.
A useful approach is to try to classify photos into categories:
1. Outright fakes and hoaxes
2. Accidental fakes (photos taken innocently, but subsequent lies perpetuate myth)
3. Photographic anomalies (long exposure/motion blur, lens flare, faulty processing)
4. Erroneous interpretation of fuzzy visual data (pareidolia, simulacra)
5. Possibly genuine paranormal phenomena.
We say ‘possibly genuine’ because we can never absolutely rule out all of the first four reasons for something appearing to be paranormal. To claim something as paranormal is an ‘argument from ignorance’ – a logical fallacy – because however thorough we are, there may be a normal cause that we’ve overlooked. ‘Possibly genuine’ is, I’m afraid, as far as we dare go in making a claim for any paranormal phenomenon captured in a photograph.
So let’s get down to some well-known examples of photos that fall into these four categories (at least in my opinion – you may beg to differ).
The Solway Firth Spaceman
Wow, there’s a lot online about this one. My initial opinion was that there’s a person standing with their back to the camera some distance behind the girl, and research bears that out. The bend of the right arm shows the figure is facing away from camera (so that’s not a visor!), and the degree of blurriness is consistent with it being some 5 metres behind the girl.
If, as some claim, the figure is a toy (“Mark Apollo” or similar), it would appear in much sharper focus, being positioned close behind the girl’s head. Also, how would it be held there? What some say are threads are actually scratches on the print or negative. It would have to be taped to a stick or something. But really, why?
Nothing about the photo suggests the negative was tampered-with or that it was faked by another method. If it was, I’m sure we’d see a much more obvious and unambiguous spaceman. Even before Photoshop, there were plenty of people around who could easily produce better fake photos than this one, in camera or in the darkroom. This is no such production.
The conspiracy-related mythology associated with the photograph (the visit from Men in Black, the link to the Woomera ‘spacemen’ and the Blue Streak rocket manufacture and aborted launch, etc) is just that: myth. None of it is substantiated and the links are tenuous at best. It all falls into the ‘believe-it-or-don’t’ basket.
Verdict: Category 2 - Accidental Fake. (Going along with it - saying nothing to correct misconceptions - amounts to lying as far as this category is concerned.)
The Washington DC Incident
A wrongly-associated story relates to 7 objects detected on radar and seen heading towards the Capitol Building in 1952. The photograph that often accompanies the account was allegedly taken in 1965. It’s probably been used so misleadingly because of a lack of photos of the reported incident, and so one's opinion of this photo should not affect one’s belief in accounts of the said UFO incident.
Although the best photo online has been copied from a book and may be cropped and slightly distorted, it’s accurate enough for this test. There are other ways of establishing the same thing, but here’s what I did: (1) open the image in Adobe Photoshop and make a duplicate layer; (2) flip the duplicate layer both vertically and horizontally; (3) make the layer 50% transparent to reveal the original photo underneath; (4) shift the layer sideways until the lights line up with their mirror images in the closest combination. You can see the small, sharper light spots from the sky appear inside the larger, overexposed images of the bright lights on the building. The spacing of both sets of lights is clearly equivalent when translated through the optical centre of the photograph. This is not a coincidence.
Another way of doing this is to find the centre of the photo then draw lines through it to connect the lights on the building with their corresponding lights in the sky, which are in the opposite quadrant. Both of these techniques illustrate the common photographic anomaly of secondary images due to internal lens reflections.
Verdict: Category 3 -. Photographic Anomaly.
The Black Monk of Brockley Court
So it was surprising, Wilson says, to see Peter Underwood publish the very same photo in his 1985 book ‘The Ghost Hunters’ and list it as a probably-genuine ghost photo taken by ‘an unknown war correspondent’.
Verdict: Category 1 - Deliberate Fake.
Possibly genuinely paranormal photos?
So, what of Category 5 – the possibly genuine paranormal photo? Confining things to ghosts for now (as I’m really not up on UFO or cryptid photos) and looking at ‘paranormal photos not proven fake’ lists online, I still think that extreme long exposure accounts for most of the unknown presences in photos. This is little-understood by non-expert photographers (which would be most people who’ve published opinions on the photos!) but believe me when I say that odd things happen when exposures start to run into many seconds, let alone minutes; and this was common for most photos taken indoor light in the past, on film that was barely light-sensitive by today’s standards. I think the famous Tulip Staircase ghost, for example, is simply a person ascending the stairs unnoticed by the photographer, who was busy trying to hold his camera still against a wall during the exposure of 5-6 seconds. It would be a simple to reproduce the same effect when given a similar physical layout.
A book such as ‘Ghosts Caught on Film’ by Dr Melvin Willin (David & Charles, Cincinnati, 2007) is full of examples of possible paranormal photos, and the commentary is somewhat skeptical but very much ‘let the viewer decide’, which is fine. Picking a few published examples that engage you and then researching them online and in books will of course present you with a range of opinions. Cries of ‘fake!’ are common, usually made in ignorance of other possibilities. Deliberate fakes aren’t as prevalent as you might think; they’re far outweighed by accidents and anomalies—photos taken in all innocence that have caught the public imagination. I’ve enjoyed learning a little about these few photos for this article, and I’m quite prepared to change my view (which is temporary) on any of them if shown strong evidence and/or a convincing argument. There could be at least one more article in this.
‘The negative has not been tampered with,’ a photographic expert said.
When researching old photos, you will often come across a statement like this. Usually the actual expert is unnamed. And tampering with the negative is but one way of faking a photo. The film itself won’t tell of any jiggery-pokery in the printing process, such as compositing an image in the darkroom using multiple negatives. (We’re ignoring Photoshop, which has only been around since the early 1990s, and I can attest it was difficult to make a convincing fake negative with 20th century film recording technology.)
Examining a negative might reveal things like:
is a blog by James Gilberd - leader and co-founder of Strange Occurrences. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Strange Occurrences team.
James Gilberd is an amateur paranormalist, writer and musician, and a professional photographer, living in Wellington, New Zealand.