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.
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
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?
The camera used, a German 35mm SLR, has a good quality standard lens, one unlikely to produce a major aberration. The camera’s design makes it clumsy to use, so it’s probable that the photographer was fiddling with the camera between shots, leaving plenty of time for someone to wander in and out of frame. The restricted viewfinder, which shows only about ¾ of the recorded picture, is another reason why he might not notice a person in the background.
Another photo from a different position shows the girl’s mother sprawling to the right of frame. Her figure and clothing, over-exposed in the main photo by the direct sunlight, is consistent with the predominant theory of her being the ‘Spaceman’. (A lot of detail is lost due to over-exposure and lack of focus.)
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
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.
Verdict: Category 3 -. Photographic Anomaly.
The Black Monk of Brockley Court
According to Ian Wilson, in ‘In Search of Ghosts’ (Headline, London, 1996, pp.45-46), this photograph was deliberately faked by dentistry student Arthur Spencer Palmer and his younger brother Charles in 1909 by double exposure in the camera with Arthur wrapped in a sheet. This was done in jest, but the brothers didn’t own up to the hoo-ha the photo attracted. After WWI, in which Charles was killed in action, Arthur set up his dental practice in Nairobi, Kenya. There, he happened to attend a public talk by the famous writer and Spiritualism-obsessive Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and was surprised to see his photograph paraded as evidence of the hereafter. He stood up in the crowd and proclaimed, ‘I am that ghost!’ He was invited on stage and he explained the trick. This incident made the newspapers in England and abroad.
Verdict: Category 1 - Deliberate Fake.
Category 4, the pareidolia/simulacra one, is a little harder because we can’t get access to a clear enough versions of a photo to make the call. But of course it’s a photo’s lack of clarity that gives rise to this type of ambiguity. One example could be the famous photo of a possible spiritual presence in the back seat of a car. Maybe certain elements in the photo – reflections, shadows, some unknown objects in the car, and film grain, are combining to appear to be a human figure – a simulacra.
Let’s put it in Category 4 for now, but it’s a hard call. It could even be considered a Category 5.
Possibly genuinely paranormal photos?
My top three candidates for Category 5: the Raynham Hall ghost on the stairs (mostly because of the account of its taking and development); Freddy Jackson’s ghost in the 1919 group photo of RAF pilots; and one from Australia, the ‘Observer at Corroboree Rock’ photo, taken near Alice Springs by an Adelaide Presbyterian minister R.S. Blance in 1959. While any of these could be due to photographic anomalies, the result of confusion of facts, or poor observation, I can’t find anything on the ‘net that clearly demonstrates they’re fakes.
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:
- faulty processing, chemical or other stains, or physical damage to the film emulsion that might translate rather strangely on the print
- misalignment of the edge of the image (compared with neighbouring frames), suggesting tampering in the camera
- a double or overlapping edge to the frame (cropped out when printed), suggesting double-exposure
- the negative has been retouched with ink, paint or dye, or locally bleached with an agent such as ferricyanide – all techniques commonly used to remove blemishes from portraits, etc, but perhaps to create a deception
- the frame has been individually cut away from a strip of negatives, denying the opportunity to compare it to other photos taken on the same film, which could be a little suspicious.