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General Assembly Required: A Brief History of Synthetic Media

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger, National Gallery

On Feb 26, 2016, Google’s Blaise Aguera y Arcas, a leader in the field of machine learning intelligence, delivered a speech at the Grey Area’s Grand Theater in San Francisco to introduce Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence program. His talk started at a seemingly unlikely place for an advanced technology initiative— an almost 500-year old double portrait by the German Renaissance painter Hans Holbein the Younger.

The painting, The Ambassadors (1533), features two normal, if medievally attired, men…and an extremely strange and obvious distortion of a human skull. As Agüera y Arcas explained, given the precision involved, it’s unlikely that Holbein painted this memento mori by hand. He almost certainly used mirrors or lenses to project the image of a skull onto the canvas before tracing its outline. Agüera y Arcas then displayed a digitally reprojected image of the skull and noted the imperfections evident in the left eye socket, which may result from Arcas moving the optics midway through tracing the projection.

If an observer approaches the painting from a specific angle, the skull appears normal. The boxed imperfections suggest that optics were repositioned during the paint.

While the precise meaning of Hans Holbein’s anamorphosis (distorted perspective) is one for artistic interpretation, he wasn’t the first person to use “state-of-the-art” technology to capture the world the way he saw it, not the way it was. Nor was he the last. Since our earliest history, humans have sought ways to reproduce their ideas and memories in ways that depart from what originally was.

Photography: Faking it till you make it

The era of synthetic media begins in force with the invention of photography. With photography came the idea of a “consistent” media record of “what was.” And as soon as photography created “what was,” humans have used photography to game it, telling a more complete or even a different story altogether. As noted by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s assistant curator of photography Mia Fineman: “Most of the earliest manipulated photographs were attempts to compensate for the new medium’s technical limitations — specifically, its inability to depict the world as it appears to the naked eye.”

General Grant at City Point, US Library of Congress

As it has with many technological innovations, war proved to be a significant accelerant of both the capabilities of photography and usage of photo manipulation. General Grant at City Point (left) is a case in point. A composite of several images that do not actually show General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, but rather a bit of “General assembly.” Three unique photos provided different elements of the portrait of the General. The Library of Congress has negatives that show:

(1) the head, from Grant, sourced from his Cold Harbor, Va. headquarters,

(2) the horse and rider’s body, sourced from Maj. Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook, and

(3) the background, sourced from Confederate prisoners captured in the battle of Fisher’s Hill, VA.

Given the limitations and novelty of photography at the time (self-preparation required wet plate negatives and long exposure times) the general public may well have suspected some unrealistic elements in the scene. It’s easy to forget when looking with modern eyes, but to a largely agrarian society, asking a horse to sit still for several seconds amidst a battle was an unlikely ask. Though even contemporary observers would be forgiven for assuming that the head and body at least came from the same person!

Sherlock Holmes and an uncanny valley of fairies

As the technology of photography improved, however, there was an increasing expectation that photographers captured the world as it was, rather than a limited approximation of it. That said, some simple hoaxes would challenge that assumption, the most famous of which involves fairies and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Frances and the “Fairies”

The Cottingley Fairies are a series of five photographs taken of cousins Elise Wright and Frances Griffins next to a stream at the bottom of a garden in the town of Cottingley, UK. Amidst this very English scenery are the girls with what are clearly cardboard cutouts of fairies that they claimed were the real thing. In the first photo of the series, the girls described the fairies as colored with “shades of green, lavender and mauve, most marked in the wings and fading to almost pure white in the limbs and drapery.” The girls took the photographs themselves, which they then developed in Mr. Wright’s darkroom. When they came out of the darkroom with the initial photographs claiming they were real, Elsie’s father didn’t believe them but her mother very much did!

Two years later, Elise showed the photographs to a meeting of the Theosophical Society, which led to their notice by writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, in addition to being the author of Sherlock Holmes, was also a famous spiritualist. Seeing the photographs as clear evidence of the psychic phenomena he had long sought, Sir Doyle went to Cottingley and asked the girls to produce what became the rest of the photos, which they obligingly did. After Sir Doyle used the photos to illustrate an article on fairies he had been commissioned to write for the 1920 Christmas edition of The Strand Magazine, the pictures found widespread attention.

Public interest was mixed from the start. While some accepted the images as genuine, most believed that they had been faked. Interest in the images gradually declined after 1921, however it wasn’t until 1983, more than sixty years later, that the cousins finally admitted the photos had been faked!

As with the distorted skull in The Ambassadors or the top trending Augmented Reality (AR) filter on Snapchat, these manipulations are notable precisely because they are noticeable. They are synthetic media artifacts, produced by their creators through technology to reflect the world they wanted to capture or create, rather than the world they could. Though born by humans, these synthetic creations presage more powerful creations to come.

This post was written by Justin Clapper and edited by Brett Martin at Previously in our Summer of Synthetic Media series, we looked at the origins of the Turing Test and what it means now that machines have passed it. In our next post, we’ll look at the industrialization of mass media. Specifically, what happened when the technological limitations and noticeability of synthetic media manipulations dropped away, forever altering both the course of history and our understanding of it. Stay tuned!

If you are working in or thinking about the Synthetic Media space, we’d love to connect! Get in touch with us team at charge dot vc!


“Art and Machine Learning Symposium.” Gray Area. Accessed June 25, 2020.

Arcas, Blaise Aguera y. “Art in the Age of Machine Intelligence.” Medium. Artists + Machine Intelligence, July 20, 2016.

“Joseph Nicephore Niepce.” International Photography Hall of Fame, August 24, 2016.

“Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints — Solving a Civil War Photograph Mystery,” January 1, 1861.

“What Did We Do Before Photoshop?” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, November 29, 2012.

“The Cottingley Fairies.” Museum of Hoaxes. Accessed July 3, 2020.

Lyster, Rosa. “The Cottingley Fairy Hoax of 1917 Is a Case Study in How Smart People Lose Control of the Truth.” Quartz. Quartz, February 17, 2017.



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