What do you do if there’s no photographer around when Valentino meets Caruso in Heaven?
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but one day in 1926 a picture was worth one hundred thousand extra readers. In August of that year, New York City’s newspapers were in the middle of one of their usual summer circulation wars. Of all the papers the most eccentric and sensationalist was the tabloid-size New York Graphic . The circulation-boosting picture showed nothing less than Rudolph Valentino’s entry into Heaven.
This was not the only such picture that helped make the Graphic the city’s second-largest evening paper. Fake photographs of executions, wild parties, and bedroom scandals all spurred sales. The Graphic posed models to duplicate events a camera had not photographed—and sometimes could not photograph—then superimposed the heads of actual participants. The proud editors coined the word composograph and claimed that by so captioning the pictures, they honored their masthead slogan, “Nothing but the Truth.”
Despite its claims the Graphic did not invent the composite photograph. Mathew Brady assembled a meeting of Lincoln’s cabinet that took place only on Brady’s photographic paper. But the Graphic was first to use the process for news coverage. It was able to do so through the skill and patience of the assistant art director, Harry Grogin, who sometimes merged as many as twenty photos into one composograph.
Generally, for male roles, staff members were drafted as models, but in its “chemise policy,” the Graphic went to outsiders for female roles.
Although the Graphic ’s circulation eventually rose to three hundred and fifty thousand, advertisers were leery, and the paper went bankrupt in 1932. In its final struggles to achieve respectability, the Graphic renounced the composite photograph. But the device survived the newspaper: in 1950 Maryland’s Sen. Millard Tydings was defeated for reelection by the distribution of a faked photograph that showed him listening to the Communist Earl Browder, and the Russians have continued to alter photographs in order to eliminate the out-of-favor from the May Day reviewing stand. Nothing, however, has matched the gamy exuberance of the Graphic ’s composographs, the best (or worst) of which are shown on the following pages.