Another Good Story Ruined: Saucers Over L.A.! — Part 1

  Feb. 26, 1942, Picture Page  
  Feb. 26, 1942, Air Raid Photo  
  Los Angeles Times file photo  

Searchlights rake the nighttime sky over a blacked-out city on Feb. 25, 1942, in the so-called Battle of Los Angeles. A powerful image, to be sure. But is it real? That is a short question with a long answer. The best we can say is that the photo has been greatly altered, but beneath the paint, some portion of it may be authentic.

We don’t know who took this Times photo. We don’t know which Times artist retouched it and we don’t know what editor decided to use it. What we do know is that the photo was published in the Feb. 26, 1942, editions of The Times to illustrate  what was believed to be an air raid over the city. 

I have the old and battered 1942 print in front of me as I’m writing this and I can confirm without question that much of what you see in this photo is painted: The beams from the searchlights are airbrushed. The supposed bursts of antiaircraft shells are blobs of paint. And the entire bottom quarter of the picture, supposedly showing a darkened skyline, is a combination of black paint outlined with the faintest edge of airbrushing.

First, some background….


Another Good Story Ruined – The Battle of Los Angeles

The Times now forbids altering photos, but for decades it was like most U.S. newspapers and published retouched photographs.  I like to post them on the Daily Mirror as a way to clear the record of some very old abuses.

  Jan. 26, 1928, William Edward Hickman  
  Los Angeles Time file photo  

Here, for example, is a retouched photograph from 1928 of law enforcement officials with William Edward Hickman, right, who kidnapped and killed Marion Parker. It’s evident that the art department eliminated the background for better reproduction in the paper – and also enhanced the reflections on the tabletop. 

  Jan. 26, 1928, William Edward Hickman  

  Frances Farmer, 1940  
  Los Angeles Times file photo  

In some instances, however, The Times art department went beyond retouching for improved reproduction to change and even falsify a photo. Here we have a 1940 image of Frances Farmer in which someone decided to raise her neckline – presumably to keep from offending readers.

  Gary Cooper, 1946  
  Los Angeles Times file photo  

In other cases, like this 1948 photo of Gary Cooper in “Good Sam,” the alterations were extreme but so well-executed that we are momentarily deceived until we take a closer look. 

It is difficult to determine how frequently The Times altered photos because the prints are kept in thousands of envelopes in the library and still more have been donated to UCLA. It’s up to luck (or misfortune) to find them.

  Charlton Heston, 1971  
  Los Angeles Times file photo  

What we do know is that the heavy retouching continued for years, as shown by this 1971 publicity shot from “The Omega Man” in which an artist painted a shirt on Charlton Heston.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Another Good Story Ruined, Film, Hollywood, Photography, UFOs. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Another Good Story Ruined: Saucers Over L.A.! — Part 1

  1. fibber mcgee says:

    Hi. This is Molly. I want you to know that when The Times raised Francis Farmer’s neckline you got one reader sore — my Fibber. He always admired that actress’ assets and even her talent. You wouldn’t cover her talent with a bushel basket would you, he asks? In defense of the way they did it in the old days, they were primarily interested in making sure the photos were legible. Printing photos wasn’t too sophisticated and the inexpensive newsprint ate up clarity in photos, too. Of course once in a while they’d find out the only photo they had of a victim was the stiff and they would draw his eyes open, or have a lady reporter pose as a (male) stiff under a blanket and the art department would airbrush her high heels out.


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