Old School Trick Photography

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This post was written several weeks ago by Alissa Helms. She has since moved on from Digital Services, but we wanted to share one of her finds from the Perkins family photos. While she was digitizing the tail end of the collection, she found some trick photography slick enough to fool anyone not paying attention to detail — including those of us who thought we knew the collection pretty well.

Good luck in your new position, Alissa!


Portrait of an unidentified girl, hand-colored daguerreotype. Image credit: J. Garnier (ca. 1850) via George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive on Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of an unidentified girl, hand-colored daguerreotype (ca. 1850), J. Garnier, via George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive

While most people today know about photo manipulation thanks to digital image software tools like Adobe Photoshop, photographic images have been subject to modifications nearly since the birth of photography itself in the early 19th century. Most adjustments made to photos then were meant to improve the quality the image and make it appear truer to life. Other manipulations were meant to trick the viewer or augment reality in some way.


One popular early photo alteration technique from the mid-19th century was colorizing black and white daguerreotype and carte de visite photographs by a process called hand-tinting. Daguerreotypes, which are images made on a silver-plated copper, were invented in 1839 and were commercially popular during the Civil War and the preceding decades. Here is an example of a painted daguerreotype.

Albumen photographic print types such as Cartes de visite and cabinet cards followed the daguerreotype and were popular in the latter half of the 19th century. Unlike daguerreotypes, these photographs were printed on a paper base and had a more stable surface. There are a few examples of colorized prints in our collections, most of them employing only 1 -3 colors. (Photographs from the Southern Cartes de Visite Collection at the A. S. Williams III American Collection.)

While adding color to monochromatic photographs can be seen as an improvement, something to enhance and make the image more life-like, other photo manipulations were meant to deceive and trick the eye rather than perfect the image. These special effect methods included distorted images, pinhole photography, mirror portraits, “magic vignettes,” artificial mirages, ghosts and spirit photography, doubles, silhouettes, and decapitated head shots.

Doubles, or doubling, was an extremely popular and relatively easy to produce photo trick. These photographs featured two or more images a single person, achieved through a double exposure on a negative. There were a number of techniques that could be employed to create the effect – some more complicated than others – and many photography magazines and manuals included instructions on how to do it.

Example of doubling effect, from H. G. Reading’s Photographic Amusements (1897), via Internet Archive

The oldest known instructions appear in the American Handbook of the Daguerreotype by S. D. Humphrey, first published in 1853 (online text version at Project Gutenberg), and, interestingly, is still being published. Trick Photography, published in 1906 (digitized version at Internet Archive), detailed a number of photo manipulation techniques, including doubling. The author describes how the effect works, and the book features an illustration of a box that could help achieve the trick. Photographic Amusements, published in 1897 (digitized version at Internet Archive), also describes how many photographic tricks of the day could be done for the bargain price of one dollar!

We have a few of these interesting manipulated photographs in our special collections. The Perkins family, once before featured in our blog, was a Tuscaloosa family who documented their lives with a camera in the late 1800s. Edwin, the oldest son of Julian and Mamie Perkins, had an apparent passion for photography and had the know-how to try out a few of the trick shots that were popular at the time. In the photographs below, he doubles himself, his brother Brook, and his cousin J. R. Kennedy, Jr. (Photographs from the Perkins family photo collection at W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library.)

“Perkins sons,” Edwin and Brook, and Brook and Edwin (ca. 1895) []

“Serenade,” Edwin and J. R. Kennedy, and Edwin and J. R. Kennedy (ca. 1895) []

“Face in the air,” Edwin Perkins x 2 (ca. 1895) []

“Soar up (soap) on top,” Edwin Perkins x 2 (ca. 1895) []

These photographic manipulations are practices that continue today. Though the technology involved is quite different, trick photography is still amusing. The Bronx Documentary Center has the online exhibit Altered Images that chronicles the history of manipulated images in American culture. The adage “the camera does not lie,” it seems, has never actually been true.


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