Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Look Ma, No Photoshop

Doug Vehle Daily Bosco

So how many of these Urban Legend EMails have you seen thru? Did you fall for the story of the car collection on the farm in Spain? Doors welded shut, the new owner had to cut the barn open, and it was full of millions of dollars in classic autos that he was now the owner of. Not a true story, the cars in the photographs were collected one at a time by the current owner. But people love to put frauds over on others, so EMails are full of tales of medical students stepping up to dissect a cadaver, only to find the body is the girlfriend. You get to thinking pretty much anything you read in an EMail is about as legitimate as the tips that the stock is going to "Explode."

So I have my doubts when my sister sends me this picture purportedly of 18,000 boot camp soldiers forming a human Statue of Liberty during World War I. Not only does that seem so unlikely, but there's problems with the photograph. It seems to bend in the middle, and the general 3D perspective is off. There's a point where there's an abrupt change in size of the people even though they are standing next to each other. The light at one end doesn't match the light at the other end, like it's different times of the day. I could go on, I work with this for a living. The thought was strong that this was another photoshop creation.

And yet, as I looked at it, I had to admit I could think of perfectly good reasons a legitimate photograph would have these problems. Mainly because the image to be photographed couldn't be captured in a single exposure. If the camera was pointing down to get the bottom of the human statue, then angled closer to level to get the upper half, that would cause bending effect when they were matched to create a single image, and the perspective wouldn't match if a longer lens was used for one of the photographs. And the lighting would almost have to be different, as in 1918 the photographer would take a long time changing plates between photographs, and would take several of an angle before laboriously moving the large, heavy camera.

So of course had the answer for me. In fact, in July of 1918, 18,000 officers and enlisted men formed the human Statue of Liberty to create an image to sell warbonds. Many were foreign born, serving in the U.S. military to gain citizenship. This is but one "Mole and Thomas Photograph," the work of Arthur Mole and John Thomas. On this 105 degree day, many of the men would pass out.

It's an amazing thought to me, trying to get all these people in place. I remember trying to get a few dozen people to stand in front of the office building for a sales video, the people illustrating the staff who'd be waiting for calls to solve problems. They didn't need to be in precise position, luckily enough, and it was still difficult. Science Fiction novelist Dr. David Brin says he finds the rainbow far more fascinating for the thought that all those millions of raindrops have to dance in unison, and even that sounds easier than getting 18,000 people to stand in just the right place. The markings on the ground, the leaders that have to be appointed for individual sections. So I can only marvel at the choreography, and think that this is what has so drawn me to my work. The funny thing is, the movies, trick photography, it's about faking things. But isn't it amazing to know the real work that goes into something like the 1933 version of King Kong, only a few feet tall, fighting those natives on a scaffolding nearly 100 feet high? They didn't have the technology that 'Star Wars' did, what with REAL spaceships and all. . . .

You can see the larger version of the Statue of Liberty and other efforts by Mace and Thomas, and by imitators of the era at

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