A few years back (which is the equivalent of centuries, in internet terms), I was shown this photograph by a friend of mine who knew I was interested in researching the American Civil War.
The photo appears to show a group of seven (in reality, eight) men in what looks to be military uniforms. One man on the far left may be holding a baseball bat and ball. There is some kind of canvas screen or tent behind them. And, hidden on the far left of the frame… a face.
The way it was explained to me (as I recall) was that it was the earliest known incident of “photobombing”. Now, for those not in the know (by which I mean the “uncool” ones in our midst), photobombing is the “art” of leaping into a photograph where you are unwanted, usually to the amusement of nobody but the photobomber. That being said, there can be a few hilarious exceptions, as seen in this photoset of photobombing celebrities.
Photobombing, by definition, is a sneak attack, executed with utmost speed and, at times, discretion – many people don’t realize that their photos have been photobombed by someone in the background until (back in the day, because I am a historian) the photos had been developed or (today, because I am a hip and cool cat) uploaded onto facebook and mocked by one of your tens of thousands of facebook friends (10,000 is a normal number of friends to have on facebook, right?). You would think that photobombing would be impossible if, you know, the photobomber had to hang around for thirty seconds or so for the shot to be exposed. Right?
Right. Apparently, as my vague memories of my friend’s story tells me, this photograph was taken during the American Civil War, when exposure times were commonly, what, at least 15 seconds, which is why as far as I know there are no photographs of the actual battles of the Civil War. The action would happen too fast to be recorded on film. The leadup and the aftermath of these battles were very often photographed, to gruesome effect. But I digress.
My friend informed me that that man hiding under the bench on the bottom left is a man from a rival regiment. (How can we tell that? The shoulder pips? The hat?) Clearly(?), this man snuck into the photograph by hiding under the bench, and thus managed to be photographed for posterity.
Now, I am currently the teaching assistant for a second year American History survey course, so when the subject of Civil War photography came up, after I thought of the usual gruesome examples of Civil War photographs (and some not-so-typical but also gruesome images: more on those in a later post), my mind immediately went to this historical example of photobombing, because I quite like to hook my students with a quick historical comic or image to get them initially engaged in the discussion we were going to have that class.
However, being the good little historian I am, I wanted to find the original source so we could discuss the image in detail. When I found it on my favourites list, it turns out I was linked to it from Retronaut.com. Not a problem. They often cite the source their images come from, even if it’s not written on the page in the description box. Except they didn’t this time. No other information, either, just the title: “19th Century Photobomb”.
So I knew I’d have to go deeper. A few months back, via Twitter, I was linked to this blog post which drew my attention to a little-known Google search option: you can search not just by text but by image. Seriously. Check it out. It’s really neat, and can be very useful for people trying to find out more about an image. However, it’s not a perfect system. I managed to find quite a few other websites that showed this particular image, but when they cited their sources, they almost invariably led right back to the Retronaut page I’d begun with, or an eloquently-named website called i-am-bored.com which also had no further sources. That one called it “One of the First Photobombs Ever: The Civil War,” but they don’t explain where they got that information either, despite apparently having enough spare time to be bored enough to post this picture. (You’d think with that much spare time on their hands they could put me out of my misery and write a bit more?) It looks like everyone else had just spotted it on either of these two pages and reblogged it without thinking anything more of it.
But where did it come from? I honestly couldn’t tell you. And that bothers me more than I thought it would. I want to talk about it, I want to show it to people, to point to the humour in the story, the unique ways people in the past weren’t all that different from us today: we still have the same urge to sneak into photos where we’re not wanted, for instance. However, I don’t feel that I can keep repeating the story I was told without knowing more about what I’m looking at. Do I even know that this was taken during the Civil War? I’m not comfortable stating with certainty from the uniforms we see that these are even members of the American military. By itself, stripped of context, it is still a fascinating image, but I’m projecting my own impressions and thoughts upon the men pictured.
So I didn’t show it to the students. I probably could have spoken about the same things I spoke of here, or even the reasons why we reblog photographs like this because of their aesthetic value or what we think they are, divorcing them from their original contextualizing explanations, if such explanations ever existed in the first place. Right now, I have this imaginary caption in my mind that accompanies this image. It would read something like “The [number] [State] Regiment, 1863, and an unwanted addition from the rival regiment, the [different number] [State].” However, I don’t want to contribute to the misinformation so common on the internet when it’s so easy to make yet another copy of the same picture and yet so apparently difficult to create a link back to the original source – if, again, such an original ever existed in the first place.
Civil War Photography Slideshow via Discovery News
Time Photos: Faces of the Civil War
And just for fun: The Three Most Notorious Photobombers on the Internet, Part I and Part II, via Cracked.com
8 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Historical Photobomb and the Missing Source”
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Oh my god! I am actually writing a definition paper on this term, and this is helpful! You rock!
I should clarify and say that I have no idea when the word “photobomb” was actually coined. My favourite etymology resource is this online dictionary, but it has nothing for this word: http://www.etymonline.com/
I know I’ve looked it up before on there and on several other dictionary sites. If you don’t mind, especially if you’re a Disney fan, please follow my blog. I’m working on something involving the Disney princesses, including Tarzan and Jane, since Tarzan is “related” to Elsa and Anna.
Great discussion. One correction. This is not a Civil War photograph. Although these are definitely American soldiers, the uniforms the men are wearing show it to be from the so-called “Indian Wars” period, after the Civil War. The most distinctive difference is the caps, which are in the “kepi” style. These men wear kepis with a short crown that rides high on the head, know as the “chasseur” style, in contrast to most (though not all) kepis in the Civil War period, which had higher crowns. They also have a crossed rifle insignia, which came into use after the Civil War as a designation for infantry units, starting in 1875. Before that, the insignia for infantry was a horn. You can read about the history of US military headgear on this Smithsonian website (see pages 39 and 50, especially): https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/2429/SSHT-0030_Lo_res.pdf?sequence=2.
Thanks for the clarification! Your point reinforces my point even more about how these images proliferate online with little context! Since I wrote this post, I wrote a master’s thesis all about how photographs have been stripped of context and reinterpreted with new text (in the history of representations of First Nations in early tourism postcards). People think of photographs as being self-evident but as you’ve just demonstrated, there’s a lot that can be misconstrued about photographs… and also a lot that can be learned if you know how to read them!
Thanks again for reading and sharing. :)