The lying camera

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The above heading refers not to the occasional electrical idiosyncrasies of the Canon camera I now use, which sometimes causes me to pine for the old Rolleiflex (even if, as older readers may recall, it did not always fit into the cubby-hole of the car I was driving!) but to how photographs can be made to lie. I once tried to order from a weekly motor magazine a fine picture of racing cars on the Members’ banking at Brooklands, but all that was forthcoming was a big print of a virgin stretch of the banking, quite devoid of cars. It appeared that, to concoct the published effect, the cars had been photographed separately and then stuck onto this print of the track — which could mislead historians.

On another occasion I was looking through a pile of old photographs with Denis Jenkinson and we came upon one showing two 2.5-litre Maseratis rounding the Fork turn at Brooklands side-by-side. Jenks became very excited, because, as he said, there should have been only one such Whitney Straight Maserati. But here it seemed was a second, and as the car seemed to be in Straights colours and the driver wearing the same type of crash helmet, it appeared that Straight was, perhaps, training a new recruit to his racing stable. It left D.S.J very puzzled, until later I found the original of this print, which showed that the photograph of the Straight Maserati had been duplicated, stuck beside the other one, and the thing then rephotographed for a joke-picture in Speed — we did not do that sort of thing for MOTOR SPORT, and were suitably shocked!

Another very eminent motoring weekly published a picture of an ace-driver in a 3.3-litre Bugatti captioned as at a certain circuit, but the car’s race-number had been changed by retouching and the Bugatti was, in fact, at quite a different track. . . .

I have been reminded of this after reading the enthralling story of the faked photographs of aerial battles in the First World War, sold by the elusive Gladys Maud Cockburn-Lange, which arrived on the scene in 1932 and have been published and exhibited ever since, widely proclaimed as the finest shots of their kind ever taken by an RFC pilot who was killed in action and who left his negatives to the lady! First shown and acclaimed in America at Putnam’s International Exhibition of Aviation Art, and then in France and Great Britain, they deceived even The Illustrated London News and the Sunday Pictorial, but not C.G. Grey, the erudite Editor of The Aeroplane.

Questions began to be asked and the storm of controversy reached Parliament and Scotland Yard. The story to which I refer occupied 23 of the large pages of the last issue for 1985 of Cross & Cockcade, official journal of the Society of World War 1 Aero Historians, whose Secretary is Mrs C.A. Leaman, Cragg Cottage, The Cragg, Bramham. Wetherby. W Yorkshire LS23 6QB. Many of the fake photographs are reproduced and this article. called “In Search of Mrs Cockburn-Lange” by Peter M. Grosz and Karl S. Schneide, is a splendid detective story. I think copies of the Journal are available only to members but those addicted to WW1 aviation may be interested, and certainly, although I have always preferred photographs to paintings and drawings where historic accuracy is sought, the article referred to shows just how convincingly the camera can be made to lie. — W.B

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