Think This Photo Is Real? Look Again

Ulysses S. Grant was never on that horse
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 1, 2015 5:30 PM CST
Historic Civil War Pic Actually 'Photoshopped'
Ulysses S. Grant in the photo composite "General Grant at City Point."   (Library of Congress)

Think photographs before the advent of Photoshop were fairly accurate? Then consider the photo "General Grant at City Point" from the enormous Library of Congress photo archives, NPR reports. This sepia-toned shot depicts Union leader and future US president Ulysses S. Grant astride his mount before a camp of captured Confederate soldiers. But on closer inspection, it's actually a composite of three photos—and reveals a deeper story about photography during and after the Civil War. First, the three pics, all from 1864: One is a portrait of Grant from which the head was taken; another was a photo of Maj. Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook, used for the horse and body; third was a shot of Fisher's Hill, Va., where Union guards oversaw a camp of Confederate POWs.

The early "Photoshopper" was likely Levin Corbin Handy, who had apprenticed under his uncle, renowned photographer Mathew Brady. After Brady's death in 1896, Handy took over his archive of negatives and produced new prints for publications. He also combined new images "to satisfy the steady demand for heroic images of the war," according to the book Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop. The book adds that Brady had spent big bucks hiring photographers to shoot the Civil War, but only in Brady's final years had people found enough emotional distance from the horrors of the war to want photographs. Now, "the composite photograph tells us something," writes Karen Graham at Digital Journal. "It admonishes us to not believe everything we see and to investigate what we aren't quite sure is true." (More Civil War stories.)

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