Peacock's 'The Capture' Will Make You Look Askance at Every Photograph You See

The NBCUniversal Peacock series The Capture explores the world of fake and manipulated video news. The show focuses on DI Rachel Carey (portrayed by Holliday Grainger) as she attempts to expose a secret organization that creates deep-fakes and manipulates CCTV footage.

Throughout the six-episode series, a famous photograph of Ulysses S. Grant from the Civil War is mentioned, as DI Carey reflects on how the image was doctored. General Grant at City Point was considered a photo that changed the world, as the picture shows Grant posing on a horse with soldiers in the background during the siege of Richmond in 1864 and 1865.

DI Carey insists that the picture never happened, but Frank Napier (portrayed by Ron Perlman) quips, "He was there; nobody took the picture." Technically, they're both right. This is one of the earliest examples of manipulated photography.

General Grant City Point Photo Manipulation
This photograph, which appeared to show General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, Virginia, is a compilation of three separate photos. The picture was referenced throughout the Peacock original series "The Capture." L.C. Handy/Library of CongressT

The picture, which is attributed to photographer Levin Corbin Handy, the nephew (by marriage) of famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, is a composite, made up of three photos. A 1864 portrait of Grant was used for the general's face, the horse and body were taken from a 1864 photograph of Major General Alexander M. McCook and the background is of Confederate prisoners at the 1864 battle of Fisher's Hill.

If you look closely, Grant's head is at an awkward angle, compared to his body, his uniform is from a different time period, and his horse, Cincinnati, has different markings by its hoof. Grant and his horse also have a much softer aesthetic than the background of the picture.

After Brady died in 1896, Handy inherited his collection of negatives and licensed them. In order to keep up with the demand for interesting photos, he curated composites that told a more interesting story than, you know, the truth.The discovery was made by researchers at the Library of Congress in 2007. They noticed that the photo read "Copyright 1902 by L.C. Handy," which revealed that the photo does not date back to the Civil War at all.

The Capture Holliday Grainger Rachel Carey
Holliday Grainger as DI Rachel Carey in the Peacock thriller series "The Capture." BBC/Heyday Films/Nick Wall

According to the 2012 book, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop by Mia Fineman, Handy began "producing new prints from the negatives and licensing images to various publications. To satisfy the steady demand for heroic images of the war fought by the fathers and grandfathers of his turn-of-the-century clientele, he also invented new pictures that casually blurred the line between historical fact and fiction."

Doctoring photos to make them more aesthetically pleasing was used to improve the appearance of the subjects. However, when it came to altering images for propaganda and political purposes (even small details), some considered photo manipulation unethical. It is still an issue today.

Processes like the wet collodion process, which permitted photographers to combine several different images onto one negative, was an early (albeit crude and difficult) form of photo manipulation, as per Creative Live. The contemporary technology was doctoring photographs in the dark room, according to Rare Historical Photos. Images were changed using ink and paint, and then assembled to create one image. Airbrushing, combination printing, and a double-exposure method were also employed when manipulating pictures.

Spirit photography also became popular after the Civil War, as a way to honor those who lost their lives fighting. William H. Mumler famously created the photo that featured Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of Abe. Mumler was charged with fraud over the doctored photo, but never faced prosecution.

William B. Becker, the creator of the online American Museum of Photography said, "it was only after Civil War veterans had enough distance from the death and devastation and the horrors of America's deadliest war for the photographs to become commercially viable."

This is not the only famous photograph that has been manipulated for telling a much more interesting story than what actually happened. Another image from the 1860s showed Lincoln's body doctored onto that of the body of John C. Calhoun. Joseph Stalin was also notorious for airbrushing his enemies out of photographs in the 1930s. In 1942, Benito Mussolini removed his horse handler from a picture in order to make himself look more heroic.

More recently, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the Kent State Massacre edited a fence post out of the background to make the picture look neater.

Today, photo and video manipulation is much more accessible with the seemingly infinite technology at our fingertips. However, the way old-school Photoshop worked was fascinating in and of itself.

The Capture is available to stream on Peacock.