In 1933, George Spicer went for a drive with his wife through the Scottish highlands. The couple saw a large, unfamiliar creature pass in front of their car and disappear into nearby Loch Ness. They later described the creature as having a huge body with no limbs and long neck. A few weeks later, a motorcyclist made similar claims, describing a prehistoric marine creature with four large fins and a long neck. These reported sightings sparked excitement among the general public and drew many more visitors to the lake, hoping to catch a sight of what would soon be dubbed the “Loch Ness Monster.” But was it real? Claiming to see a monster is one thing, but proving its existence is another matter entirely.
In November that same year, Hugh Gray captured the first photograph that was thought to depict the Loch Ness Monster, now affectionately known as “Nessie.” Gray claimed to see a large creature rise above the surface of the water and snapped several photographs, but only one contained any information. The picture revealed a shape appearing to have a long neck and thick body. At this time in photo history, many people believed a photograph to be indisputable proof of evidence. Although manipulation techniques were common, the general public was not as familiar with them as they are today. Even so, many critics believed Gray’s photograph to be a dog swimming with a stick in its mouth, instead of the elusive monster.
On April 21, 1934, the Daily Mail published what is arguably the most famous picture of the monster. Known as the “Surgeon’s Photograph,” the photograph was reportedly made by a doctor named Robert Kenneth Wilson. The photograph depicts the trademark long neck of “Nessie” emerging from rippling water. For decades, believers and critics debated the authenticity of the photograph with myriad theories about its subject.
Since the publication of the “Surgeon’s Photograph” inspired hundreds of people to flock to Loch Ness in 1934, we have come to mistrust photographs more frequently than we view them as evidence. In 2016, our default response to a photograph claiming proof is to casually suggest that it has been photoshopped. In his 1984 article in the British Journal of Photography, Stewart Campbell analyzed the famed photo. The original version of the Surgeon’s Photograph shows a dark band along the top of the image and provides a sense of scale between the monster and the Loch. In the version published by the Daily Mail, the image is substantially cropped in, blurring the subject’s shape, and skewing its scale to suggest that is substantially larger. After comparing the two versions, Campbell concluded that the object in the water could only have been a few feet long at most. He speculated that it might be a seabird or otter.
Is the Surgeon’s Photograph a hoax? Unfortunately, yes. In 1994, 60 years after it graced the pages of the Daily Mail, Christopher Spurling verified the photograph as a hoax by admitting his involvement in its production. Spurling was the stepson of Maramaduke Wetherell, a famed big-game hunter who had been hired in 1933 by the Daily Mail to find the Loch Ness Monster. He returned from his expedition with evidence of enormous footprints leading from the lake’s shore into the water. However, Natural History Museum researchers concluded the tracks had been made with a dried hippo’s foot, which were popular umbrella stands at the time. Humiliated, Wetherell retreated from public view. After Spurling revealed the photograph as a hoax, he explained that Wetherell had enlisted his help to create a model of the monster’s neck and place it on a toy submarine. Robert Kenneth Wilson was chosen to give the photograph to the media because of his trusted reputation as a doctor.
While it may not be proof the Loch Ness monster’s existence, the Surgeon’s Photograph had a tremendous impact on the thoughts, ideas, and beliefs of many people around the world. It remains an important part of photo history and serves as a reminder of photography’s fickle relationship with truth.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.