Photo tampering, it’s as old as photography itself!

By Sergio González | 11:42
Cottingley Fairies

Cottingley Fairies, one the greatest examples in the history of photo manipulation

Manipulating a photograph to make it less real-looking and closer to matching the  interests and feelings we wish to promote in the observer is as old as photography itself, but Photoshop’s impact has been so huge that from its creation on, airbrushing is called photoshopping

Not having this awesome tool by themselves didn’t stop the first photo tamper artists, who had to create their own photo manipulation techniques on the go.

The time was around 1860 and Abraham Lincoln had a civil war to win. Apart from large armies and a good strategy, the most useful weapons for war includes psychological warfare. Not that it was as important during the American Civil War as it was for WWII, but portraying a strong president of the Union was of extreme necessity; nobody wants to fight for a weak sick leader.

As history teaches us, Abraham was quite an active man, and he was really thin as a result of that extra work -thank God beards went into fashion- as anyone can test out by looking at his cheeks. His most famous picture isn’t from him. It’s his head, but on the more powerful and well-built body of southern leader John C. Calhoun.

One of the greatest photo manipulation stories of all times came a few decades later, performed by two young cousins in Cottingley, England, in a bright sunny day in July 1917, as the original news prays. Media coverage of the Cottingley Fairies was huge and even sir Arthur Conan Doyle fell for its magic enchantment.

A world full of fairies really fitted his interests since he was a well-known Spiritualist. He supported the cousins in two quickly sold-out articles in The Strand, empowering the movement that had already started around the five fairies. Some criticism arose but not punishing the girls for trying to trick us, just staying that it was a children’s game. Important were the names saying it couldn’t simply be possible –physicist Oliver Lodge pointed out that the hair-dos looked distinctively Parisian and according to those fashion times– but when you want to be believe, nothing can stop you; nothing but X-rays. It was John Hall-Edwards’ efforts, one of the pioneers in the X-ray medical research in the UK, the ones that left no doubt about the tampering.

Photo manipulation kept on its relation with politics during the 20th century and one of the most eager users was Stalin, USSR ruler between 1920 until the early 1950s. This man quickly grew accustomed to erase former friends, then enemies, from every picture; sadly, he did that in real life too. The history of photo manipulation wouldn’t be complete without Mao Tse-Tung’s contribution, first leader of People’s Republic of China, who used to imitate his northern neighbor in this matter.

Digital images are far more easy to manipulate or tamper and nowadays it’s almost impossible to see a picture of any celebrity without half an hour worth work in photoshopping. We can all spot it quickly as the effects make them look unreal: nobody is that flawless. Dove’s video for promoting real beauty ( shows us exactly how well and how much celebs’ pics are being distorted and our perception of aesthetics with it.



The tricks can go really far and we can still remember the impact the Pretty Woman poster had in photo manipulation. The endless legs shown under a miniskirt, were supposed to belong to Julia Roberts, were actually Shelley Michelle’s. You’ll find an interesting debate in this post on how this is affecting our perception of beauty and attractiveness.

I’ve spent the last couple of decades grappling with two very contradictory messages: that Julia Roberts is gorgeous and I should want to look like her, and that she is aesthetically inadequate for Hollywood (extract from

It seems we are no longer happy with this ceaseless faking and cheating. UK goverment banned last 2011 precisely a Julia Robert’s ad of Lancôme foundation make-up because it was so airbrushed that it was considered a fraud. No one could achieve such skin without tampering the photo.

Truth be told, some celebs seem to have grown tired of that unreal self-image and in the past two years we’ve seen several top actresses and singers, plus socialites working in unknown jobs, posting free manipulated photograpies on several social networks and so portrayed on magazines. In April 2010, a fallen-from-grace Britney Spears put it simply when asked about the reason to release an un-airbrushed self-pic: [I want to] highlight the pressure exerted on women to look perfect.

The issue on photo manipulation keeps on growing as last year The American Medical Association started a program against it. It all began in 2009 when the Ralph Lauren campaign tampered photo of Filippa Hamilton, showing her twist so altered that looked wider than her head.

The AMA considers that the appearance is extremely altered, only attainable with the help of photo-editing software and they also think that we must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers [to them]. Keira Knightley and Brad Pitt have already signed in; What are your thoughts about it?

Photo credit: kristiannoordestgaard


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