thinking about archaeology

Here’s why I think that Stonehenge photo is fake

Yesterday I blogged a photo that won the British Life Photography Awards 2015. It was a striking image of dawn at Stonehenge, captured on a field of camera phones. There was something odd about it though: as I noted in parenthesis at the end, “why do I have a faint wonder if it’s been Photoshopped?”

I had a closer look at it last night. It may be real. But I think the photographer, and the award, need to prove it. There are too many things with the image that don’t seem right.

Here are some recent views of the same event.

screenshot 1.jpg

The above image is a still from a video on the Guardian website, published in June last year. The video shows a typical recent scene at Stonehenge as the sun rises on the midsummer solstice dawn.

Here is another screenshot from the same video.

screenshot 2.jpg

Here is a photo taken on the same day, published by the Telegraph:

Stonehenge_Summer__3348745b.jpg

And finally a photo taken at the same event in 2010. This was published by the Daily Mail:

article-1288255-0A20CE7D000005DC-707_964x492.jpg

What do we see? Overall, the British Life Photography Awards picture (BLP) has a quite different look about it. It shows a relatively monochrome view of people crammed together all apparently holding up phones at a similar height (see the crop below). None of the other photos shows this. We see a lot of phones, but most people are not taking photographs. The crowd is more varied and colourful (note how the colour in the sky is reflected in the foreground, which doesn’t seem to be the case with the BLP image). If you look in particular at the BLP hands, light seems to be coming from a variety of directions, which is odd as there should be no direct light on the back of the hands at all.

2015-winner-51920 crop.jpg

cameras.jpg

Most significantly, I think, as with the BLP image, in the press images above we can see pictures on phone screens. But they are not all identical (see a selection in the lower row above). They show different views, as we would expect, and the clarity depends on the type of phone and the angle of the phone relative to the camera that shot the photo. In the BLP image the cameras all show an almost identical shot, the same view, the same light, and all extremely clear (look at the highest phone on the left: is that really the view that would have been seen from that point?). There’s no depth in the image. It has something of the manic impact of a John Heartfield photomontage, but it’s not a straight photo. It’s a clever desktop composition.

Why does this matter? Could we be seeing a new Heartfield in the making? That would be good, the world needs more satirists.

The BLP Awards is a website competition, with an impressive list of judges, including Chris Steele-Perkins and David Yeo. It’s cheap to enter (you can submit three images for £10, and up to a total of 40). The entry requirements are simple and open, and encourage phone images. This is the second year of the awards, and it comes with the second book… which has the Stonehenge image on the cover:

2015-BLPA-Portfolio-2-cover.jpg

There are submission guidelines. They include this:

Not permitted:

Physical changes e.g. adding or removing objects, people; or stripping in sky from another image etc.

Digital collages, sandwich shots and composites.

The rules allow “digital adjustments” (“Minor cleaning work including removal of sensor spots and dust, moderate adjustments of: contrast, tonal values…” etc). But the winning 2015 image seems to me to go well beyond such tinkering. If so, whatever we think of it, someone else should have won.

Elena Marimon Munoz appears to be a student at the Centre for Digital Entertainment, working on image acquisition and image enhancement in digital radiography. She clearly knows a thing or two about digital imaging. But was her entry to the BLP Awards fair?

9 responses

  1. Yes, I noticed extensive retouching – especially with the phone screens – but supposed this was within the rules. Perhaps it should be?

    March 8, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    • mikepitts

      Photography and photomontage are quite different arts. We can assume excluding the latter reflected that view. But perhaps there’s scope for a montage category?

      March 8, 2016 at 2:30 pm

  2. Thanks Mike, having tried and failed to get a similar shot it didn’t feel right to me.

    March 8, 2016 at 2:40 pm

  3. Stu

    Sadly, can’t help agreeing with you. Having said that, the images are supposed to ‘capture the essence and spirit of British life’. Is cheating in competitions becoming part of the British spirit? Perhaps Elena is cleverer than you think!

    March 8, 2016 at 2:43 pm

  4. Dr Dan H.

    If you look at the phone screen on the upper right (held by a person with a watch on their right hand), you will see a couple of strange things. Firstly, the phone is being held at a slight angle, and the Stonehenge lintels are also at an angle on the screen; if this were a live view then that would not be the case.

    Secondly, this person is left-handed, but is holding the phone in their right hand, which isn’t natural at all, but which works very well for the composition of this shot.

    Thirdly, the images displayed on the phones all seem to be a bit more blue, and less rosy than the actual view.

    Fourthly, all the images show something like an Android standard camera app.

    I think that the photo was taken moments before this shot was set up, shared between the ten people whose phones are in the actual shot (there are just ten phones visible, that’s all) and then displayed on the phone screens. Then these actors all got into position in front of the photographer, who would then shoot a series of photos to make sure they got that single iconic image.

    In other words, not photoshopped but still a deception.

    March 8, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    • mikepitts

      That’s ingenious – and arranged “deceptions” have an honourable history in photography. However, it wouldn’t explain the light on the back of the hands, which is difficult to reconcile with either the conditions of the time, or any natural lighting situation. And if you look closely there’s some very odd anatomy going on…

      March 8, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      • I looked at all the hands and it seems to show there is an appalling lack of diversity in the crowd – they all seem to belong to slim young white men wearing art college cool dark jumpers. Some even seem to be wearing identical wrist bands and jumpers. http://www.sarsen.org/2016/03/prize-winning-photo-of-stonehenge.html. for a montage of them.

        March 9, 2016 at 10:00 pm

  5. By chance I noticed a picture on http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/06/21/thousands-of-druids-pagans-and-revelers-flock-to-stonehenge-for-summer-solstice/ which is very similar to the prize winning picture – it was taken in 2014 and has at least one of the same people in the crowd (a balding man). Looks very different in the way the cameras are held and of course in these days of selfies some people stand with their back to the event to picture themselves with it behind them.
    Was there ever any feedback from your posts?

    June 10, 2016 at 1:41 pm

  6. mikepitts

    Well spotted. I’m not sure i can see any exact pastes from that photo, but at the least it looks like a convincing inspiration for the winning shot, and a good illustration of what the scene reality looks like, emphasising the faked montage. I’ve heard no more than you can read here. The competition rules are very clear that this winning shot should have been struck off. It’s still there, on the front cover of the book on the competition website. If you click there on the first link, you got straight to a window telling you Amazon has put the book in your shopping box. Big clue.

    June 10, 2016 at 3:48 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s