Sunday 26 June 2011

The Hugh Gray Photograph Revisited

Date: 12th November 1933
Time: About Noon
Location: Near mouth of river Foyers
Witnesses: Hugh Gray
Type of sighting: Water/Photograph

This comes under our Classic Sightings series but the difference with this event is that a photograph was taken. And if a photograph is taken, you can bet the swords were drawn out in the pursuit of cutting it up and dumping it in the "hoax" bin. In fact, it already has been but let's see how far we can get with this iconic picture.

Hugh Gray is well known in Loch Ness Monster circles as the man who took the first photograph of the Loch Ness Monster. I say "Loch Ness Monster" because I believe the photograph to be genuine and part of the evidence portfolio. The picture that generally circulates is shown below:

The Daily Record took his picture and Mr. Gray gave the following account to the newspaper having been interviewed by Hugh Mackenzie (the future Provost of Inverness), Peter Munro representing Hugh Gray's employers at the British Aluminium Company and a Daily Record staff member:

"Four Sundays ago after church I went for my usual walk near where the river enters the Loch. The Loch was like a mill pond and the sun shining brightly. An object of considerable dimensions rose out of the water not very far from where I was. I immediately got my camera ready and snapped the object which was two or three feet above the surface of the water. I did not see any head, for what I took to be the front parts were under the water, but there was considerable movement from what seemed to be the tail, the part furthest from me. The object only appeared for a few minutes then sank out of sight."

The tenor of the account suggests some throwing up of spray and water as the presumed tail beat about the waters and hence caused some blurriness around that region of the picture. Mackenzie described Gray as a man highly respected by his fellow workmen, employers and locals. Likewise, the Daily Record had the negative examined by four experts who deemed it as untampered. It caused a stir, was panned by zoologists and faded along with general Nessie-lore as the World entered into war six years later.

Twenty two years on, Constance Whyte visited Hugh Gray in May 1955 who still had vivid memories of that day in 1933 and also recounted five other times he claimed to have seen the monster over those decades. Whyte's account can be found in her book "More Than a Legend".

Tim Dinsdale also recounts in his book "Loch Ness Monster" how he visited Gray in April 1960 and described him as "a most courteous individual" as he took him to the spot of the sighting. He spoke with "complete conviction" about that day as well as maintaining an accuracy of his account. He also added some detail of his other sightings which partly consisted of rapidly moving bow waves with no visible cause.

What remains of the photograph today is uncertain. A few prints have been extant over the years but the negative appears to have been lost forever. In this Internet age, one original print scanned from a book tends to win the day and become the prevalent image. But there are possibly three images currently about depending how you view them.

Firstly, however, was the reaction to the picture from the skeptics. Zoologists of the time summarily dismissed it or suggested unlikely explanations which does not surprise anyone who is familiar with the phenomenon. Leading Nessie debunker Maurice Burton suggested Gray had actually seen an otter sporting in the water and even displayed a picture in his book "The Elusive Monster" (below) to simulate how such an animal could produce the image on the photograph.

Ronald Binns had other ideas and in his book "The Loch Ness Mystery Solved" indulges in some innuendo when he said that Gray was a "leg-puller" and implied that he had hoaxed the picture. How Ronald came to that conclusion was rather circuitous. First he claimed to have identified the spot where the picture was taken and said that there should have been some foliage visible in the picture. He does not state why he assumed the tree growth had not significantly changed in the intervening 40 to 50 years nor how he fixed on the alleged spot.

A further reference to an "A. Gray" from a May 1933 issue of the Inverness Courier is also presented as evidence. This particular Gray was reported as contriving to use hooks, fish bait and a barrel in an attempt to capture the monster at Foyers. Binns speculates he may be the same Mr. Gray and hence a bit of a practical joker. This is in complete contrast to the character references we have stated above.

Steuart Campbell in his 1996 book, quotes Dinsdale as suggesting the photo looks retouched and also mentions the prevalent theory today that the photograph shows nothing more than a dog swimming towards the camera with a stick in its mouth. Admittedly, Dinsdale is ambivalent on the picture and seems uncertain as to what it shows. As a result, he commits neither way to it and simply moves on. However, it is doubtful Dinsdale regarded Gray as a faker given what he said about him.

In terms of analysis, Ted Holiday was the most enthusiastic supporter and saw the picture as a major piece of evidence to support his idea that the monster was a giant invertebrate. In fact, in his "Great Orm of Loch Ness" book, he conducts a close examination of the picture which to him reveals evidence of some warts, a slime sheet, neck segmentations and two appendages. However, the clarity of the photograph is not high and this is partly down to the fact that the creature was throwing up spray at the time as well as some over exposure being present on the film.

Nevertheless, the detail on the film is fascinating and has evoked various explanations. The most recent one is that this is a swan, We cover this in another article.

The prevalant one is that this picture shows a dog swimming. Now this is a case where the front of the brain should ignore what the back of the brain is telling it. The visual cortex is expert at searching for and extracting patterns and this particularly applies to common images which the brain expects to encounter regularly. It is up to the higher brain functions which sceptics champion to process this and reject it as not possible. Unfortunately, some higher brain functions have decided this is a convenient explanation to get rid of this picture and move on.

So I repeat, there is no dog in the picture. It is an example of "simulacra" where an image of something is perceptually superimposed over what is the actual reality. This phenomenon has become popular in news media tales of how somebody could see the face of Jesus on their toast (and then sells it on eBay). The fact that you may be able to see a dog is besides the point. There are three reasons why this should be discounted.

Firstly, and by way of experiment, I found a good photo of a dog swimming in the same posture. It is shown below (copyrighted property of 123RF Limited under Free License). I then fired up my image processing software on Windows to layer this and the Gray photo. The process is simple.

1. Take the dog picture and then layer over it the Gray picture.
2. Resize the Gray picture until it is the same size as the dog picture.
3. Draw in circles to fix where the right eye and nose on both pictures are and align them.

4. Use the opacity slider on the software to vary the transparency of the real dog image to compare and contrast key areas.

What is the conclusion? The Hugh Gray "dog" appears to be missing half of its face on the right. There is no recognisable eye or ear to fill in the complete picture. There is a splash to the right where the ear should be. I don't see how they can be accommodated in the Gray image even by my over zealous visual cortex.
The other problem is that there appears to be nothing recognizable as a stick. There is a very sharp shadow line where the creature meets the water which does not compare well with the actual dog/stick picture. The other problem is the "snout" in the Gray image is more elongated. Note that the real dog has his muzzle raised and spread out to accommodate the stick. In fact a dog will tend to raise its muzzle above the water to aid breathing. The "dog" in this picture appears to have its mouth too close to the water.
The final observation comparing the two layered images is the distinct water line of the object which is far too clear cut for what is expected of a dog swimming.

The second argument against Fido is that the popular version of the Gray image doing the rounds is not the original. In true media fashion, it was retouched to make it more legible to their readers. Rupert Gould says it was retouched in his 1934 book and this is reiterated by Peter Costello in his book "In Search of Lake Monsters" where he lays the blame with the Daily Telegraph for touching it up to emphasize the waterline. This may have been the retouching that Dinsdale referred to earlier in this post.

How this was exactly achieved is not known but increasing the contrast of the image looks to have been part of the process with the resulting over-emphasizing effect on the "dog" image.
You can recognise this particular print by the two scratch lines that radiate from an imaginary central point towards the bottom of the picture. It is best in these cases to get the most original image and as luck would have it another print came into the hands of Maurice Burton in the 1960s which were made from glass lantern slides in 1933 for E. Heron-Allen. Importantly, these contact positives were made from the original negative and represent the best untouched picture of what Hugh Gray saw that day. It is this picture that we used in the layering experiment above and is reproduced below courtesy of Janet and Colin Bord's Fortean Picture Library.

Compare this with the retouched version above and you will perhaps begin to understand the problem at hand. Unfortunately for most of us, the visual cortex having conditioned itself to see a dog will continue to prise a dog out of the picture.

The final clinching and perhaps most important argument is the general structure of the picture. Ask yourself one question - where is the rest of the dog? Look at the real dog picture and you will see a bow wave and its back causing turbulence to the rear of the photograph. Now look at the Gray photograph. There is absolutely nothing behind our supposed dog head. That is because there is no dog body and hence there is no dog head. To get a clearer vista, here is the Heron-Allen picture in the most uncropped form that I could find. Note the continuity of the wave patterns suggestive of no forward motion by the object in the picture.

Now it may be objected that this is a double exposure of a dog but this will not wash either. The Daily Record had the negative examined by Mr. M. Howard of Kodak and Mr. C. Clarke of the Kodak Magazine as a safeguard and they stated there was no tampering of the negative. In the unlikely event they failed to spot a double exposure one would still expect the rest of the dog image to disrupt the clean wave patterns we see.

There is no dog in this picture, keep telling the rear of your brain this important message! In fact, the problem has the potential to compound. On his own Loch Ness website, Tony Harmsworth, explains the dog theory to readers by producing two photographs. The first is the retouched image from the Daily Telegraph and the second is his further touched up version which for experimental purposes emphasizes some dog features in order for people to see this "dog" (see link).

Fair enough, but if you see the second photograph anywhere else, disregard it. In fact, given the propensity for copying and pasting on the web, it will migrate under the pretense of being the original photograph (in fact, it already has on at least one website).

Sadly, this points out the problem with properly critiquing such theories today. I am surprised that this dog theory could have lasted for so long yet the conclusion is that sloppy research sidestepped the issue because it was a convenient explanation for an awkward picture. The lack of Nessie "believers" in proportion to Nessie "sceptics" perhaps explains this but we move on.

So if it is not a dog, then what is the image showing us?

Ladies and Gentlemen, behold the Loch Ness Monster!

So much for my opinion but if sceptics overextend themselves in extracting a dog from the picture then was Ted Holiday equally over zealous in seeing slime sheets and warts? Quite probably Holiday had a better resolution picture to magnify given that silver based film has a higher DPI than modern digital cameras. However, that depends on the quality of the film and how enlarged his print was. This is how he interpreted the image:

1. Neck with head submerged.
2. Neck segmentations.
3. Anterior hump.
4. One of several wart-like vesicles.
5. Anterior parapodium.
6. Sheet of slime.
7. Posterior Hump.
8. Posterior parapodium.
9. A wave.

Examining this in the light of the Heron-Allen image, it is not certain that (1) is a neck though it does appear to slip under the water. Likewise with (2), (4) and (6). However, the light patch marked as (6) and the wave at (9) do look like lighter patches over or on the surface of the creature. I say this rather than defects on the film (such as over exposure) because the two patches create corresponding lighter reflections on the water line below. The two small light "balls" above (5) which were erroneously taken to form the "dog's ear" also look interesting features, possibly water cascades? They can be more clearly seen in the Heron-Allen image above.

The "parapodium" or appendages are certainly there but the overall shape of the animal that Holiday draws is not correct in my opinion. In fact, thanks to this better photograph, we can see that the outline of the creature extends beyond the wave at (9) to the right. In fact, the wave is not all its seems. The "wave" looks as if it is rising then curling down to fall but this is an illusion - it is water spray plus something else.

If we zoom in and display that part of the creature there appears to be some kind of stubby, conical like morphology present which can be traced partly into the spray. There is also a suggestion of something like drips dropping from this feature and creating their own little concentric ripples below. To confirm its solidity, note how this conical feature casts its shadow on the water below.

What it however depicts is a matter of some conjecture but that there is some kind of face present with open mouth and an eye is a reasonable one. I don't think this is another case of the visual cortex filling in the blanks as this is a clearer feature than the barely visible "dog" and it casts a shadow on the waters. The annotation below attempts to describe these features. The dark interior of the mouth and what may be a tounge can be seen with the suggestion that the head is partly turned to the camera.

The spray to the left is real and not a picture defect in my opinion. It is into this water formation that the head disappears and it is hard to make any deductions about any neck from that point onwards though clearly it cannot be of a great length given the proximity of the body. The position of the presumed eye suggests a more fish like that cetecean appearance as whales and dolphins have eyes beyond the end of their mouths and not above it. However, no dorsal fin is visible, though this is not such an issue for fish such as the eel. Thinking of an eel in this context immediately brings to mind Roy Mackal's thick bodied eel interpretation of the creature. Putting this together gives a rough outline of the creature's body below.

The "parapodia" are marked as per Holiday and I have noted two possible water cascades perhaps thrown over from the other side by other appendages. Several areas of shading are noted though it is uncertain whether they are part of the creature's skin. The splash is again noted to the right which obscures the creature's form before we see the opened mouth head. How the torso curves into the water is put in dotted lines as again the water spray makes its curvature into the water unclear. Note how the shadow line clearly denotes a raised hump structure which descends towards the spray and there is an indication of a break in the shadow line between the hump and head.

The creature is unusually high above the waterline and it is not known how it is being propelled upwards as there is little evidence of flipper commotion in the waters around it. It is like Hugh Gray said, it rose out of the water and sunk back down again. In fact this is not uncommon to Nessie sightings and has led to suggestions that the creature has some form of internal buoyancy. Of course, all aquatic creatures need some form of buoyancy else they would sink to the bottom.

Some achieve it through motion of appendages and other by internally retaining volumes of gas or liquid less dense than water. This volume is regulated to cause them to rise or sink. Whether this is being achieved by flippers or other means cannot be fully ascertained from this photograph.

So, the Loch Ness Monster posed for its first photograph in November 1933. Yet despite seventy eight years of scrutiny it seems this "head" interpretation has gone unnoticed all that time. This is down to a combination of the press of the time touching up the picture, the "dog" theory holding sway for at least twenty years and various noted Loch Ness researchers taking us down other paths of interpretation (or just ignoring the picture).

I hope this analysis has put the case back on the table that this is no fake but one of the best pictures of Nessie around today.

P.S. Thanks to my daughter for spotting the "head"!

The author can be contacted at


The Forsenics of the Loch Ness Monster
More on the Hugh Gray Photograph
Hugh Gray: The Man and his Monster
Is the Hugh Gray Photograph a swan?