Posted by: victorianophelia | October 31, 2012

The question of existence and truth in composite photography

I am especially intrigued by the composite photos from the Sekula reading, mainly because I find the “existence” of the subject fascinating. With one of the first photos we looked at this year of the young criminal who was put to death the day after his photo was taken, I was struck by the fact that in the moment the photo was taken, it captured the life energy of the man and it will exist forever in print. However, at the same time, the man in the photo is no longer physically living. Even though I find it difficult to look at a photo and believe that its subject no longer exists, I find it even more disturbing to look at a photo and know that its subject does not and has never existed, but is a composite of many faces (on a slight tangent, I read somewhere that the people we see in our dreams – aside from the familiar faces of friends and relatives – are actually the composite faces of strangers we have encountered, of memories of people we met in passing, of people we do not know even exist after a fleeting glance: in the same way that I feel disturbed by the idea that the people in my dreams truly exist and are not figments of my imagination, I am startled and disturbed by the idea that the people in these Victorian composite photos [for e.g. by Galton and Hines] do not truly exist and are figments of the photographers imagination).

In this post I want to share an image I found by googling Hine’s composite photography. I stumbled upon a website ( that has several of his photos of child labor and actually found one of the original photos of a young girl who makes up at least a large part of one of the composite photos we saw in the Sekula article (p 53, “The Body and The Archive”). The thing I loved about finding these photos is that they are accompanied by Lewis Hine’s original captions:

“The Mill: One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mill. She was 51 inches high. Has been in the mill one year. Sometimes works at night. Runs 4 sides – 48 cents a day. When asked how old she was, she hesitated, then said, “I don’t remember,” then added confidentially, “I’m not old enough to work, but do just the same.” Out of 50 employees, there were ten children about her size. Whitnel, North Carolina.”

The image from the Sekula article

I thought this was particularly interesting considering our recent discussions about the relationship between text and image. The original image is accompanied by the girl’s voice, and her manner of speaking, and I think this is a huge part of how we view the photo. She is said to “hesitate” and speak “confidentially,” and with the knowledge of her hours and pay and something so specific as her height (51 inches) I know that I become attached not only to the image of the girl but to her character. In first looking at the composite photographs I believed them to be of “real” people, and in the ones where there are many alongside each other I believed the composites featured to be related.

Another image from the Sekula article (p 49), and one that I originally believed to be of three brothers

The composite photos without an explanation through text do as they were meant – they create types – but they do not make up a real, or true, person. Without the text we are fooled by the photo, and the truth that this person in the image and the person they are trying to typify does not actually exist, is obscured.

On another side note, I was recently watching a music video for the song “Safe and Sound” by Capital Cities and noticed a lot of modern composites of the two band members faces (one has a large beard and the other is clean shaven, and yet they chose in this video to use lots of shots of their mingled faces in quick succession and it becomes difficult to tell which is which and if the images you’re seeing are actually even of one or the other)! Obviously today it is a lot easier and more common to do this, but since we had been looking at the victorian images in class I think I spotted this faster than I would have originally. I am sure there are plenty of examples, but since I was watching this video tonight and it triggered this post, I figured I should include it. Excuse the dancing girl and the llamas.


  1. I loved Hine’s picture of the mill girl, standing alone, before the composite. Today I would think that the photograph would be considered art. Her expression is “matter of fact” I wonder if they knew why their photographs were being taken?

  2. Having the text that accompanied the image definitely changes the viewers reception experience. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not. I think that in some instances the text can permanently afix an idea to the image and, in much the same way that the image is making a truth claim, the text changes that claim. When all we have is the image we are left to do our own interpretation. When the photographer or editor has supplied text we have to either take that text at face value or further interrogate it.

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