A set of 34 famous black and white photos of WWI dogfights sold recently at auction in Australia for AUD$1,130 (+/- US$1,000), the only rub? They’re fakes. In the 1933, a woman who claimed to be the widow of a Royal Flying Corps pilot, going by the name of “Mrs. Gladys Maud Cockburne-Lange” published Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot, which included numerous photographs purportedly taken in the midst of aerial battles during World War I. The book became a bestseller and the photographs attracted tremendous attention, and “Cockburne-Lange” started selling the photographs to newspapers, galleries and other publishers, claiming that her deceased husband had taken the photos during the war. In reality she was Betty Archer, wife of Hollywood special effects technician, Wesley David Archer.
Ignoring the long exposure times that cameras of the ‘teens required to get an exposure, “Mrs. Cockburne-Lange” claimed that her husband had mounted a camera on his plane, with the shutter triggered by the trigger on his machine gun. The resultant dramatic photos provided a unique look at German and British planes engaged in dogfights, planes afire and pilots bailing out of their stricken craft.
The public was predictably smitten with the photos, though the legitimacy of the subject matter was questioned from the outset by people in the know who insisted that not only would it be impossible to capture clear shots of a moving target from a moving airplane with cameras of the day which required several seconds of exposure, the impossibility of hiding the large camera from one’s superior officers, but also raised doubts about how was it that the plane’s wheels were so clean given the muddy conditions much of the time on WWI airfields, and why, if the camera was triggered by the machine gun, were there photos of British planes. Also suspicious was the widow’s refusal to be contacted or interviewed in person.
It mattered not, as the public was fascinated by this then-new form of warfare and these pictures met that curiosity with the added benefit of making money for the publications in which they appeared. The photographs were not definitively proved to be fakes until 1984 when the Smithsonian received a collection of ephemera from that was left from the estate of Wesley Archer, some thirty years after his death. In the collection of papers and memorabilia from his years working in Hollywood were the original negatives of the toy airplanes positioned in front of actual aerial photographs before their wire supports had been airbrushed out, a manuscript of the book, and many other pieces of evidence which finally put any notions of the legitimacy of the photographs to rest.
The story goes that having fallen on hard times during the Depression, the couple conceived of this hoax as a moneymaking venture, with Wesley inventing the anonymous Royal Flying Corps pilot, writing the diary and creating the photographs based on his remembrances of serving as a pilot during the First World War. So while these photos don’t actually document actual dogfights, they are the best approximation of them that a professional special effects man that had experienced it first hand could create, and apparently they are indeed (in)famous and compelling enough to fetch a grand at auction.