The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources

Faked Photographs – Primary Sources or Not?

Last Sunday’s (August 23) New York Times had a fun article by Bill Marsh called “Faked Photographs: Look, and Then Look Again.” The article made me wonder just how much editing makes a primary source photograph no longer a true primary source.

Most of the photographs in the online slide show that accompanied the article are indeed famous, but also controversial because of their editing:

  • Lincoln with “his head grafted to the more majestic body of John Calhoun.”
  • Ulysses Grant mounted on a fine horse before a military encampment–actually three photos spliced together.
  • Stalin in a photo minus an erased enemy.
  • Mussolini minus a horse handler (more manly that way).
  • Chairman Mao in a group photo minus the Gang of Four.
  • Life Magazine‘s Kent State shooting photo with a pole removed.

Of course, such editing is far simpler today given digital technologies. I would not hesitate to remove a pole coming out of someone’s head, as did Life Magazine in the Kent State photograph. That’s what photo editing software is made for, right?

When students analyze primary source photographs, they must be made aware that every photograph results from the interplay of the time period, the technology, the photographer’s purpose, and often the photographer’s or the subject’s own biases. Like all primary sources, photographs are made for a reason. The discovery of that reason becomes the foundation of critical thinking activities.

To introduce a critical thinking activity tied to photographic analysis, teachers often use this American Memory lesson: Does the Camera Ever Lie? The activity comes from the Selected Civil War Photographs collection of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


Union or Confederate Soldier? Well, that depends.
Gettysburg, July, 1863.

Photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, July 1863.


2 Responses to “Faked Photographs – Primary Sources or Not?”

  1. Kathy says:

    I guess they are all primary sources in their own way.

  2. Some years ago, I created the web page “Is Seeing Believing?” named after a curriculum that I discovered at the Newseum. The web page,, is designed to get students to think critically about images from the past and present. I do not believe educators spend enough time teaching VISUAL LITERACY: getting their students to question images from popular culture and current events. In fact, I use both in my professional development workshops for teachers. I hope that you will take a look.

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