Can we put the Solway Spaceman mystery to rest?

USAnians may never have heard of this really neat story that has remained a mystery for decades. Has the origin of this mysterious picture finally been solved? There is now an explanation for why there appears to be an astronaut in the background of a picture of a little girl in the English countryside. Of course, not everyone will accept it.

BBC News – The mystery of the Solway Spaceman.

On a bright summer’s day in 1964, a Carlisle fireman took a photo of his daughter that created headlines around the world. Fifty years later are we any closer to solving the mystery of the “Solway Spaceman”?

A white suit. A helmet. A dark visor. Mr Templeton, they believed, had photographed a spaceman.

Other than his wife, Annie, and two pensioners sat in a car, the Carlisle fireman maintained he had not seen anyone else that day on Burgh Marsh, overlooking the Solway Firth in Cumbria.

It was, he said, only when the chemist who processed his pictures pointed out the shot had been spoiled by a figure that he realised there had been somebody – or something else – present.

The picture was not tampered with. The media grabbed hold of it. The story evolved to include Men in Black visiting Templeton and a report of similar figures seen on a missile range. This was during the time of the space race. Tensions were high, imaginations were active. But the real story was both more simple and more complicated. There was no evidence for visits by suspicious figures from the government or other witnesses’ accounts of spacemen. Dr. David Clarke, a folklorist, concludes the interpretation of the picture is in the eye of the “holder”. It’s most likely that the mother of the child wandered into to the background of the photo and the overexposure and hidden lower half makes her resemble what people were thinking of at the time. She appears in other photos and this looks like a match. Clarke notes that with today’s Photoshop ability, people would be more questioning of such a picture but it was an innocent time.

Tip: Mark Richards (@savvo on Twitter)

  28 comments for “Can we put the Solway Spaceman mystery to rest?

  1. May 23, 2014 at 9:31 AM

    I wouldn’t even go so far as Dr. Clarke to excuse this one. Nothing to do with viewfinder coverage, everything to do with the fact that 99% of people looking through a viewfinder only see the subject they’re focusing on.

    Templeton didn’t see his wife when he took the picture because he wasn’t looking at her, only his daughter.

  2. Indrid Cole
    May 23, 2014 at 9:53 AM

    It definitely looks like a Spacemom to me!

  3. JanErik
    May 23, 2014 at 10:04 AM

    I could only see a little girl in front and a person wearing a headscarf and a light cardigan facing away from the camera in the background.
    It really took some imagination to “see” the spaceman

  4. iain campbell
    May 23, 2014 at 10:39 AM

    I’d like to see the other photos for comparison.

  5. May 23, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    They are in the article. Always check the source I list.

  6. Rich
    May 23, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    I read an interesting analysis of the photograph quite recently, which added some useful information about the location; there’s a sloping earthwork bank where the picture was taken, which may help explain the apparent height of the ‘spaceman.’

  7. One Eyed Jack
    May 23, 2014 at 4:23 PM

    And here I thought the little girl had an even littler person growing out of her head.

    Color me embarrassed!

  8. Paul
    May 23, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    Here’s another post from 2012 does a good job of making the same argument: it’s the mom.

    The thing that kills me is how often this photo shows up in lists of “unexplained photos” with no mention of the fact that there’s a perfectly good explanation. Ah, the internet.

  9. May 23, 2014 at 6:09 PM

    I remember seeing this photo back in the 1970s and even back then (when I believed in flying saucers), I never thought the image look like a “spaceman”.

    Just goes to show you how we’ll believe almost anything we are told to, especially if they are in a position of authority such as a news reporter or TV show host.

  10. busterggi
    May 23, 2014 at 6:25 PM

    Oh no, you don’t fool me, I’ve seen Men In Black – the ‘little girl’ IS the alien.

  11. Dan
    May 25, 2014 at 10:26 AM

    The thing that stands out for me with this photograph is that if the “spaceman” were actually a person standing 10 or 15 feet behind her, there is no corresponding shadow on the ground. The girl has a very prominent shadow to the right side of the picture. There would be a shadow on the ground behind the girl’s neck from any tall object behind her. So it seems to me that it must be something much smaller and much closer to her.

  12. Dan
    May 25, 2014 at 11:08 AM

    I don’t think it’s the wife. If you look at the picture that includes the wife, you’ll see that her dress is sleeveless. The girl’s flesh tones are properly exposed, so one would expect that if the “spaceman” had been the wife, then her bare arm would also be properly exposed – not overexposed to the point of being white. Also, since the background object has definite shadowing on it, one would expect the blue of the dress to appear in the shaded areas – even if the rest had been overexposed.

    I suspected the answer is something incredibly simple, but it’s still very hard to figure out what it is based on what we can see. I’d love to see more of the photographs to see what other objects they had with them. I’d love to see the whole shadow to the right of the girl in the photograph.

  13. Rich
    May 25, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    Yes, the limitations of the photograph are quite frustrating! To me, the arm of the figure behind seems consistent with a bare arm in a sleeveless dress; you can even see the line of shadow where the sleeve ends, just over the shoulder.

    I don’t know what time the photographs were taken, but if you look at the shadow from the flowers on the girl’s hand they are falling at quite a sharp angle, suggesting that the sun was quite close to being overhead; as you imply, the shadow of the girl therefore may not strech out far beyond the edge of the photograph. Similarly, the shadow of the figure – if they are 10 to 15 feet away – may not stretch out far enough to be visible beyond the girl’s head. (On the other hand, there is a smudge in the grass in about the right place; is this a shadow? Would it be darker if it was?)

  14. Dan
    May 25, 2014 at 3:24 PM

    In the picture that includes both the girl and the mother, the flesh tones of the mother and of the girl are not overexposed – and the color of the mother’s dress is also evident. There’s no reason to believe that the mother would become completely overexposed when standing behind the daughter. The light source is the same distance from both subjects – 93 million miles – and the shadows on the girl’s face are distinct, showing that she is not in the shade or anything like that. I don’t understand what mechanism would cause a human in the background to be overexposed when the girl in the foreground is not.

  15. Dan
    May 25, 2014 at 3:56 PM

    Something I find interesting, is the shallow depth of field in the picture of the girl. Her face is in focus, but the grass in front of her dress and the grass close behind her is out of focus. The rule of thumb for photography on a sunny day is the “sunny 16 rule.” That tells what shutter speed to use relative to your film speed. I’ve read at least one reference that says the photograph was taken at f/16 at 1/100 of a second, which would be a standard setting shooting on a sunny day with ASA 100 film. That quite small aperture setting would result in depth of field from very near the lens out to infinity. And yet, that’s not what we see in the photograph. The background goes out of focus fairly close behind the girl. For that to be possible, the aperture would have had to have been almost wide open. That would have required neutral density filters on the lens — or a very very fast shutter speed. Either way, it would have had to have been a deliberate choice by the photographer. And that makes one wonder why the photographer would have wanted soft focus in the background.

  16. Fred
    May 26, 2014 at 7:58 PM

    Photo-bombed by mom.

    Yeah, looking at the other pics, that’s definitely the wife in the background.
    What I don’t understand is how Templeton didn’t realize it was her(or apparently, anyone
    else in the UK for that matter).

  17. lawn
    May 27, 2014 at 9:08 PM

    This puts it to rest:

    I always thought it looked like someone walking away from the camera.

  18. Dan
    May 27, 2014 at 10:03 PM

    By “false color” what they mean is “colored.” It appears that they have added the blue and added the flesh tones – where there are none in the original picture. Of course that will make it look more like the mother.

    There is just no way that the girl’s mother is going to be 100% overexposed in that picture. The girl’s dress and flesh tones are properly exposed, so it makes no sense that her mother’s dress and flesh tones would become 100% washed out – even in the shadowed areas. The distance between camera and subject makes no difference for exposure and I see no logical reason to think that a person standing 15 or so feet away would have a much greater amount of light falling on them.

    This could be a person wearing a white long sleeve shirt or a white jacket, but it cannot possibly be the mother.

  19. Dan
    May 27, 2014 at 10:26 PM

    Here is a link to a copy of the picture in which I have doubled the color and increased the contrast:

    Note that the “dress” does not become blue and the “arms” don’t gain flesh tones. Bits of the sky remain blue — but the clouds take on a sickly green — as does the figure. That’s a pretty good indicator that the figure is actually white.

  20. Rich
    May 28, 2014 at 6:15 AM

    Not sure I agree with the conclusion that “it cannot possibly be the mother.” Regardless of exposure or colour, we can clearly see form. If you look at the image posted by lawn above, it looks *very much* like a woman, in a sleeveless dress (very like and perhaps identical to the one the mother was photographed wearing in other photos on the same day in the same place at the same time), with her back to the camera, her arm on her hip.

  21. Rich
    May 28, 2014 at 6:24 AM

    It also says in the article and other sources that viewfinder of that model of camera he was using showed 70% of what the lens was seeing. Which fits the photograph quite neatly:

  22. Dan
    May 28, 2014 at 7:58 AM

    More specifically, what I mean to say is that it can’t possibly be any person with normal skin tones in a blue dress. It could conceivably be an albino in a white dress.

    There would have to be a lot more light on the supposed figure behind the girl for it to be a person in a blue dress with normal flesh tones that have gone 100% overexposed. But I see no evidence of greater lighting levels in the background than there are in the foreground. We can see that the grass has the same exposure near the girl and throughout the distance behind her. So there is no great change in the lighting levels between where the girl is and where the figure supposedly is behind her.

    The object behind the girl is something white or very nearly white. It shows no color in the shaded areas, where we would expect flesh tones and the blue of the dress to appear.

  23. May 28, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    There is a very plausible explanation for this and evidence is heavy on the conclusion that this is the mom. You can go around for days saying “No, it’s not” but that’s silly.

  24. Rich
    May 28, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    The lighting levels would be the same on all photographs taken at the same time.

    If you compare the two pictures in the BBC article, you’ll see that the colour values of objects that are in both images (the girl’s dress, her hair, the grass) are very different.

    I think there’s too many variables between the two pictures, the reproduction, and in the quality of the original film to be able to judge how accurately either picture represents actual colour that was there on the day.

    I’m not sure I can make this point very clearly, but I’ll have a go: if you argue that the ‘Spaceman’ picture represents an all-white person that therefore can’t be the mother, then you could also argue that the girl in both pictures is a different girl because the dress, hair, skin are different colours. In other words, the dress can’t have been green because it looks brown in one photograph. I’d argue that the anomaly lies in the picture rather than the object photographed.

    It seems unnecessarily complex to introduce an albino in a white dress which no-one remembers seeing rather than the mother, who was there, in a dress we can see she is wearing.

  25. Dan
    May 28, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    Here’s the thing – I’m a photographer and a filmmaker. I have won awards for lighting. I work with light. I understand exposure. I’m also a dyed in the wool skeptic. So I’m not saying that the opposite of it being the mother is that it must be an interdimensional spaceman. But I also think it’s important that if you’re going to say a mystery is solved — that observable details fit the explanation.

    Two objects of similar appearance under the same lighting will be exposed similarly within the same frame, regardless of aperture, film stock, filters or length of exposure. We can tell by looking at the grass that the sun is providing fairly even illumination throughout the picture. The only way that a person in the background would be so completely overexposed would be if a small atomic bomb went off behind the girl’s head. But that would also cause the grass behind her to be overexposed. There is no extra illumination in the background. So the object behind her is actually white or nearly white. That is what the observable details show.

    I’m certainly willing to have someone explain to me how it could be an overexposed person. An explanation would need to include a functional description of what is causing that area to be overexposed. Just saying that it is the mother and she’s overexposed does not stand up to scrutiny. The guy who came up with this explanation is a journalism professor and a writer of books, but I don’t see that he is a photographer. He does have a Ph.D., which might explain why he thinks his expertise in some areas is greater than it is.

  26. Dan
    May 28, 2014 at 10:52 AM

    And I have not been merely saying “No, it’s not.” I’ve been providing rational explanations throughout.

  27. Dan
    May 28, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    The primary difference between the two photographs is that the second (the one with the mother on hands and knees) is shot with the sun more toward the backs of the subjects. We can see this by how the shadows fall more in the direction of the camera — where in the shot of the girl, the light is coming from the left, causing her shadow to fall to the right and a little bit behind. But we can’t compare many details between the two pictures, but the change in lighting will cause lots of changes to color and shadows.

    But the second photograph does show that the mother does not become overexposed when the mother and daughter appear in the same frame. If the mother became a white blob in the second photograph, then we’d really be on to something.

    I don’t mean to suggest that an albino in a white dress is in the photograph. I’m just saying that a person in a sleeveless dress would have to be an albino and the dress white for the photograph to turn out that way. I’m fairly sure it is not such a person.

  28. June 1, 2014 at 4:04 AM

    That’s what ‘viewfinder coverage’ is.

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