The Story of One of the Earliest Composite Controversies

The Story of One of the Earliest Composite Controversies

The use and misuse of composite photography is a story we hear about quite often. Long before the days of Photoshop and digital manipulation, though, composite photography existed. Here's the story of one of the earliest controversies surrounding a composite.

In the second half of the 1800s and well into the 20th century, the United States experienced a national obsession with natural disasters. As cameras became more commonplace, there was a peculiar fascination with the wrath of Mother Nature and sensationalizing it, whether that was in books, newspapers, or even the thriving postcard industry. When I was younger, I was fascinated by tornadoes and wanted to be a meteorologist — so much so, that for my twelfth birthday, I didn't ask for a Gameboy Color or a Sega Dreamcast, I asked for a 1300-page book on tornadoes

When, to my elation, I received that book, I devoured it. About halfway through reading it, on page 683, I came across a very strange photograph. A tornado alleged to have occurred on May 17, 1898 in Waynoka, OK was pictured, but there was nothing right about it. The way the funnel attached to the cloud base, its location in the storm, its overly perfect funnel shape (it's rare that funnels are actually shaped like funnels), and even the lighting were off. 

As I stared at the bizarre image, I read the caption, which in the classic tradition of meteorologists coolly understating the facts, read:

This photograph of the tornado funnel at Waynoka, Oklahoma by G.F. Green was the first to have been published in a newspaper, the Alva Pioneer, a few days after it occurred. The way the funnel and the funnel join in this photograph does not look very natural. This photo was probably touched up or combined with another photograph that had a more interesting cloud base. Early photographs were frequently altered to make them more saleable commercially. Note the similarity with the fraudulent duplicate in Figure 22; April 27, 1899 at Kirksville, MO.

Now, the story was getting even stranger. I flipped ahead four pages and found this:

It was the same bizarre funnel and cloud base! This shot was even stranger. In addition to all the weird meteorological aspects of the photo, the trees seemed unaffected by the tornado, but if you've ever seen a tornado, you know that's not the case (each of those "branches" is an entire tree being uprooted): 

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this photo, however, was the two people standing mere yards from the tornado. Besides this being a likely physically impossible feat, given the strong inflow in a tornado, no one in their right mind would ever get that close. (Note: Neither I nor most meteorologists condone the recent trend of "extreme" storm chasing. If you're not a trained spotter or meteorologist, never attempt to chase a storm.)

So far, we have a photo that was probably doctored to enhance its chances of being the first ever picture of a tornado published in the press, and now, a doctored version of the doctored photo. Alas, at the tender age of twelve, I was not yet equipped with the tools to investigate further. And thus, I left the curiosity where it was, finished the book, and devoured the next book I could find on tornadoes. 

Recently, 16 years later, I was thumbing through that same book when I came across those two bizarre images again. This time, armed with years of time spent in libraries researching obscure academia, I felt I could get to the bottom of it. It didn't take long. The second image in Significant Tornadoes listed an image credit to the Monthly Weather Review; thus, I set out searching for the 1899 set of issues. Since the second tornado was alleged to have occurred in late April, I found the May issue and began scrolling through it, when on page 203, an article caught my eye: "Spurious Tornado Photographs." I had found it. Written in the flowery prose common to 19th century publications was a comprehensive and delightfully sassy account of the whole folly.

The article acknowledges the camera's newfound home with weather:

We have watched with interest and curiosity the efforts of some manipulators of the camera to reproduce the phenomena of nature in all her varying moods. There can be no particular fault found with the enterprise of the photographer, be he amateur or professional, who sallies forth at high noon, or soon thereafter, and under the friendly shadow of an accommodating cloud makes moonlight views by the score. 

However, what's particularly interesting is what follows next:

We confess, too, that we can pass into the waste basket without hesitation the many poor attempts to fabricate the funnel cloud of a tornado. We received one such not very long ago from Mr. Connor (referring to the first photograph). It was better than the average, and instead of going into the trash basket, it went into a convenient drawer.

So, it turns out that it was so common a problem that the editors weren't even surprised to receive a fake; they were more impressed with its quality than anything. The editor, Alfred Henry, recognized the dubious funnel when it came across his desk a second time, this time via a Mr. Gosewisch. Acknowledging the relative quality of the forgery, Henry dispatched Mr. Gosewisch with an incredible piece of old-school sass:

The job is well done... but it pains us to think that people will take such liberties with the business end of a tornado. Only to think, 'It was taken at 100 yards!' We sincerely hope that the pioneer who 'took it at 100 yards' will some day meet a real robust tornado.

I burst out laughing when I read this. What followed, though, was an expert breakdown of this whole kerfuffle. Henry acknowledges that the original picture was likely made by compositing a funnel with a "beautiful photograph of sunset clouds and landscape," while the second photograph substituted a road and osage hedges to give the photograph a more Missouri-like appearance to match it to the Kirksville, MO event. But where did the bizarre funnel itself come from?

It is evidently not a photograph from nature of a genuine tornado funnel. It has every appearance of having been drawn in india ink on glass and then photographed by printing upon the landscape negative. The retouching of the original negatives so as to convert a portrait from nature into a beautiful work of art is carried on in great perfection by modern artists, but any application of this art to photographs that are to be used for scientific purposes does more harm than good.

And so, not only was the strange tornado determined not to be a tornado at all, so too was there an early expression of the idea of scientific and journalistic integrity for the sake of preserving the truth of representation and the sanctity of inquiry. Henry leaves the article with one more admonishment against such practices, noting that he expected the forgery to appear in the press again merely to fulfill the need to put a picture to a "dreadful disaster." 

Long before the days of Photoshop, manipulation by hand was a prevalent issue. Tornado science was very much in its infancy, barely two decades old at the time of this publication; thus, it's a testament to the shrewd nature of Henry's discernment in not only recognizing the fraud, but solving the mystery of its origin. I certainly don't mind the humorous sass either. 

Lead image by Leo Ainsworth and courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce, used under public domain.

Composite examples courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce, from Monthly Weather Review, vol. 27, issue 5, May 1899, used under public domain.

Information and captions on the composite photographs courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce, from Monthly Weather Review, vol. 27, issue 5, May 1899 and Significant Tornadoes: 1680-1991 by Thomas P. Grazulis.

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3 Comments

Hans Rosemond's picture

Interesting article! Funny how a mild curiosity has evolved into a virulent problem with the advancement of technology.

Alex Cooke's picture

Thank you, Hans! I agree; it's a strange, but also exciting time we've come into!

Much like today, people tend to like to talk about their methods, findings, and achievements. I wonder if those photographers back then did not publish (it was all the rage after all ;) ) articles on the hows and whats, simply for the fact of doing something new. We know a story or two about the invention and spread of photography so why not on photographic manipulation? I wish this story would have contained a little bit more on that matter.