Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Faking a Classic Combat Photo

You've probably seen the image above in photo histories of the Great War. It was one a series of propaganda photos created for exhibitions that were mounted in London by British, Canadian, and Australian photographers. "The Raid," as it was originally titled (later it was known as "Over the Top")  has a lot of dynamic elements to it — too many, as a matter of fact. It turns out that it was rather difficult to get dramatic combat images to show the folks back home because battlefields are damn dangerous places. And no photographer in his right mind would be standing in no-man's-land with shells falling all over the place and aircraft overhead looking for targets of opportunity to take an image of the boys going over the top.

M.T. Jolly in Australia has made a systematic study of WWI propaganda photos, and he has discovered a lot about "The Raid" that explains how these images were manufactured. It was the work of Australian official photographer Frank Hurley, who was stationed in Flanders and Palestine late in the war. I was surprised to discover in Jolly's work that these "composites" as they were known were officially sanctioned, and they were revealed as assemblages in the exhibition's catalogs. Such language as "This picture is a combination of two photographs, each taken on the Ypres battlefield, and is constructed to show an incident common in the experience of those who know the place," was used to subtly justify (or alibi) the fact that they were faked.

Jolly believes 12 different negatives were combined to create  "The Raid." Here are a few of the pieces that I think give an idea of how the final product was patched together.

This is a preliminary photo of what will actually turn out to be both groups of soldiers going over the top in the composite photo. Note that they are not ducking or watching for approaching enemy or aircraft overhead. Also, the photographer is standing in the open on the parapet. He's not worried about being shot at either. This is clearly not combat, it's a reenactment or training exercise — the men are simply too casual for someone who is facing the possibility of imminent death. Note for further reference the position of the tarpaulin in the trench.

These are the men going over the top shortly after the above photo.  Shell explosions have been added to enhance the feel of battle. This group is shown on the left side of the final composite.  

These are the same men leaving the same trench a second or two later. The photographer has moved a few steps backward and to the left, so the troops look slightly smaller and in a different formation. This is the base image for the right side of the final photo. It's the same men as on the left side. You would think that the tarpaulin would be a give away, but look again at the final composite below.

The tarpaulin on the left has been shaded in by about 30 percent to make it less conspicuous. The tarpaulin on the right has been shaded in completely. The effect is that this appears to be a simultaneous attack from two different trenches. More shading was added to the merged images to distinguish between the two trenches and more explosions dropped in to add to the excitement. In the sky, the smoke – not visible in the base photos – was added, plus the low-flying airplanes. The author believes these aircraft were photographed by Frank Hurley in Palestine and transported to this position on the Western Front via photographic negative. All-in-all, the end product is extraordinary, but, alas, it is still a fake.

Source: "Fake Photographs: Making Truths in Photography," PhD Dissertation by M.T. Jolly at the University of Sydney, 2003.


  1. Very interesting. As you say, those men would not be standing with their heads above the parapet. It appears to be training. Even those in the support line would be above ground with shells falling about

  2. There are several interesting web sites giving info on Hurley's "composites" and their reception - and their (not entirely spurious) justification. Another sadly very common class of 'fakes' are stills taken from commercial movies and presented as actual battle scenes. It's usually possible to work out what's fake by asking yourself: could the photographer - with the cumbersome apparatus of the time - realistically have been in a position to take this photo? (Or, as with Bill's comment above, are the participants behaving realistically?) The famous "Somme" film contains training exercises masquerading as 'true' combat sequences. Faking all started in the American Civil War, so we're told ...

    1. Some times you have to fake it to actually give a more accurate picture of what war would really be like. How could 1 still image ever convey the chaos of battle?