Thursday, September 25, 2014

Special Report: The Trent UFO Photos - the "Best" of All Time - Finally Busted?

Once again, farmer Paul Trent's famous UFO photos from McMinnville, Oregon are a hot topic in UFOlogy. Kevin Randle discussed the photos on his Blog A Different Perspective, and a torrent of comments from researchers followed. Not just frothy opinion, but highly detailed, meticulous comments about the camera angle and position, the weight and size of the hypothetical model, the load on the wires and a possible bend in them, etc. Ultimately this is important, but such matters are unlikely to give us a final answer. There is one thing about this case that everyone can probably agree with: as Randle says, "there are only two conclusions to be drawn about the pictures taken in McMinnville, Oregon. They either show a craft from another world, or they are a hoax. I do not see a third possibility."

1950: The Origin of the Photos

On May 11, 1950, farmer Paul Trent of McMinnville, Oregon snapped two photos of an object that he claimed was a flying saucer (the term "UFO" hadn't been invented yet).  There are inconsistencies in Mrs. Trent's accounts of where her husband was when the object was first spotted, and who went inside to get the camera. They did not immediately tell anyone about the photos, or rush them off to be developed. Instead, the film containing the invaluable flying saucer photos was left in the camera until Mother's Day, so that a few unexposed frames would not be wasted. More general information on the photos is on my web page .
Trent Photo #1 (scan of first-generation print)
After the photos had been developed, a reported who came to interview the Trents found the irreplaceable negatives lying "on the floor under the davenport, where the Trent children had been playing with them."

Trent Photo #2 (scan of first-generation print)
The story first appeared in the local newspaper the Telephone-Register. This led to a sensational national story in the June 26, 1950 issue of Life Magazine, then one the largest-circulation magazines in America.

Life Magazine article. Photos are cropped, removing wires.

William K. Hartmann and the Condon Report, 1968

The famous (and to some, infamous) Condon Report included the Trent Photos in its section of Photographic Case Studies as Case 46.  The principal investigator was William K. Hartmann who, incidentally, was the first person to come up with the presently-accepted theory about the origin of the earth's Moon.

This analysis attracted a lot of attention from UFOlogists, particularly because of Hartmann's conclusion that 
This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses. It cannot be said that the evidence positively rules out a fabrication, although there are some physical factors such as the accuracy of certain photometric measures of the original negatives which argue against a fabrication.  
Hartmann acknowledges, however, that a fabrication is possible: 
The object appears beneath a pair of wires, as is seen in Plates 23 and 24. We may question, therefore, whether it could have been a model suspended from one of the wires. This possibility is strengthened by the observation that the object appears beneath roughly the same point in the two photos, in spite of their having been taken from two positions. This can be determined from irregularities, or "kinks," in the wires. The wires pass between the camera positions and the garage (left). We know from the change in orientation of the object that it moved, or was re-oriented by hand, between exposures. The possibility that it is a model hanging beneath a point on the wire suggests a further test: Is the change in distance of the object in Plates 23 and 24 equal to the change in distance from the wires? Measures of the disk indicate that it is about 8% further away in Plate 24. Measures of the irregularities in the wires indicate that they are further away from the camera in Plate 24. The amount of the latter increase from the wires (measured by the separation of rather ill-defined "kinks") is less certain than the distance increase from the disk, but it is measured to be about 10%. These tests do not rule out the possibility that the object was a small model suspended from the nearby wire by an unresolved thread.

Given the foregoing analysis, one must choose between an asymmetric model suspended from the overhead wire, and an extraordinary flying object
The sole factor suggesting that the object is distant is a measured anomalous brightness on the underside of the object in Photo 1, compared with the brightness of the shaded underside of the oil tank. The assumption is that, in the case of a model, the two shaded regions ought to have about the same brightness. Since the underside of the object is brighter than the underside of the tank, the assumption is that atmospheric scattering is the cause, and hence the object is at a significant distance from the camera.

When I read this, I immediately thought of at least one other possible explanation for the anomalous brightness. When observing bright stars or planets in telescopes, we invariably see light scattered by the optical system from bright objects into adjacent dark areas. The same thing happens in cameras. The technical term for this is veiling glare. The cheaper the optical system, the more light that tends to get scattered, and Trent's camera was a budget model, not professional quality. This is especially troublesome when fingerprints or other smudges accidentally get onto the lens, which certainly happens to me, and probably to most other people.

The significance of this is that while the dark underside of the object is immediately adjacent to the bright sky, the bottom of the tank is in a large, dark area of the photo. Hence one would expect more light from the surroundings to spill over into the bottom of the "UFO" than into the bottom of the oil tank.

I was an undergraduate at Northwestern at this time. I decided to test this hypothesis by photographing a concrete light pole in the daylight, with the top of the pole surrounded by bright sky, while its bottom was against a much darker background. I found a professor who had a densitometer in his lab, and would show me how to use it. I measured a series of photos and, while the top of the pole was only a little brighter than its bottom with a clean optical system, the addition of just a little petroleum jelly to degrade the optical system greatly increased the amount of veiling glare - spilled-over light - in the photos.

UFO researcher Bruce Maccabee has measured the original Trent negatives. He argues that, while veiling glare is indeed present, it isn't enough to account for the anomalous brightness. But even if that conclusion is correct, if any of Hartmann's assumptions are incorrect, the photometry results are meaningless. Among the possible violations of those assumptions:
  • If the object is translucent, allowing light from the sky to pass through.
  • the object has a mirror surface at the bottom, thus we are seeing a reflection of the bright ground, and not a shaded surface.
  • If the underside of an object suspended several feet above the ground from the wires receives much more illumination than that of a tank near the ground, next  to a wall. (I would expect this to be true.)
Very sharply defined shadows in both photos - obviously cast by sun.
There are very distinct shadows on the garage in both photos, although the Trents claimed that the photos were taken around sunset. The problem is that the wall faces east, and the sun is in that position (about 90 degrees azimuth) about 8:20 AM PDT. If the photos were actually taken in the morning, then the Trents were lying about the circumstances of the incident. I found that, measuring the shadows, we can greatly restrict the size of the object casting the shadows. In fact, it is so small that it is almost certainly less than one degree:
The angle abc above represents the radius of the illuminating body. Assuming these measurements, it is the arctangent of .004, which is 0.229 degrees. This matches extremely well with the known average apparent radius of the sun, which is approximately .25 degrees. Even an undetected reduction of 20% in the size of the shadows in the photo, which is highly unlikely, allows the radius of the illuminating body to be no larger than 0.46 degrees (diameter 0.92).
The maximum possible diameter of the illuminating body is thus shown to be less than one degree, and is probably closer to one-half degree. The area of a one-degree circle is less than 0.025% (1/4,000) that of the quarter sky facing the garage wall.
A bright cloud in full sunlight is only about 10 times the surface brightness of the sky surrounding it.[3] Furthermore, during and after sunset, the sunlight in the landscape has traveled a very long path through the atmosphere, and has thus been very evenly scattered and diffused. According to the astronomer M. Minnaert, by about 10 minutes after sunset, the sky and landscape in the east is dull and of uniform hue. Even a half-hour before sunset, clouds in the east assume a dull red color.[4] To attribute the illumination in the photos to a bright cloud, or to a bright hole in the cloud cover, especially after sunset, would require a surface brightness of these remarkable clouds on the order of magnitude of thousands of times that of the surrounding sky, which is inconceivable. It is particularly implausible that such illumination could exist around the time of sunset.
Conclusion: Because of the small maximum angular size of the illumination body and its intense brilliance, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the shadows in the Trent photographs are cast directly by the sun.
Maccabee still maintains that the shadows on the garage were cast by a bright sunset cloud, even though the McMinnville weather station recorded perfectly clear skies at 7:00 PM on May 11, 1950 (the last observation of the day). His illustration of that argument is below. I have seen and photographed such clouds myself, I am not saying that they do not exist. However, look at the board Maccabee sets up to try to replicate the shadow of the eaves on the Trent garage. The board casts a decent shadow for a few inches below the point where it touches the wall, then as the board moves slightly farther from the wall, the shadow quickly fades to invisibility. At the point where the shadow disappears, at the top of the support pillar, the board is only 8 inches or so from its shadow. The end of the eaves on Trent's garage were approximately twenty inches from the wall (I measured this on a building of similar construction), yet the shadows are still sharp and distinct. This is because they were cast by the sun, small and very bright, not a large, diffuse cloud. If Maccabee can find a sunset cloud that can cast sharp shadows of such boards at twenty inches, then I might be prepared to accept his argument.

Maccabee's illustration of a bright cloud casting a shadow at sunset. But the shadow is too diffuse to allow it to be seen when the board casting it is some twenty inches from the wall.

Carpenter's truck mirror, and Trent #2

In 2004, researcher Joel Carpenter (1959-2014) created a website on the McMinnville photos, making a very good case that the object was directly beneath the overhead wires, and close to the camera. He suggests that the object was a mirror from an old truck. I have restored Joel Carpenter's original McMinnville photos website (fixing only the links), and placed it on the Internet Archive.

One of Carpenter's findings is that Trent's camera was surprisingly close to the ground when the photos were taken. For some bizarre reason, Trent did not stand up but instead crouched down to photograph his UFO. Carpenter explains,
Instead of moving toward the object and shooting the photos from eye level in the unobstructed front yard, he shot the two photos up, from a very low level, from the back yard. For reasons explained above, it seems likely that he actually used the viewfinder on the body of the camera while kneeling. The overall geometry of the positions and the attributes of the camera suggest that he was attempting to frame a nearby object in such a way as to maximize the amount of sky around it and enhance its apparent altitude.
In other words, Trent walked away from where the UFO was supposed to be, and instead walked toward where the presumed model was hanging from the wires, and crouched down close to the ground to make his "UFO" appear distant.

 Since the camera moved a significant distance between Photo 1 and Photo 2, can the two Trent photos possibly be viewed as a stereo pair, to reveal the object's distance? In 2010 an anonymous researcher calling himself Blue Shift did so on Above Top Secret. He writes,
This is another cross-eyed stereo pair. That means you need to back away from the monitor a little bit, cross your eyes, and try to line elements up in each picture until you get them together and in focus. Try it first with the oil tank. That has been shrunk to size and aligned to make it a little easier.

Unfortunately, the two photos were taken some distance apart and with the photo on the right a few steps forward. So it'll take a little practice for you to line up some of the other elements, like the bush by the driveway, the telephone post, and maybe even the far away ridge...

Now just for the hell of it, line up the saucer. It won't be exact, because they're at a different tilt in each photo, but do what you can. Got it?

Now "look up" at the overhead wires. Curiously enough, they line up at the same relative distance as the saucer! That's interesting, don't you think? And if you look around the image, as well as the other available images of the yard -- the ones with the ladder -- the wires are not far away at all, but are actually closer to the camera than the oil tank. So if the UFO saucer lines up at that point, then there's a pretty good chance that the UFO is actually pretty close to the camera, also.

Well, certainly the UFO could have moved and somehow by pure chance managed to get a stereo separation of exactly the same distance and at the same relative angle as the overhead wires. That would be amazingly coincidental, wouldn't it?
The Trent photos as a stereo pair, by "Blue Shift" on ATS. The "UFO" is seen to be small, and relatively close.

Another way of demonstrating the same thing: a montage by David Slater demonstrates that when the two Trent photos are overlaid so that the wires are lined up, the images of the “UFOs” line up as well. Both these demonstrations show that the “UFO” appears to be fixed with respect to the overhead wires.
The Trent photos overlaid, by David Slater. "UFO" and wires all line up!

 In 2013 a group of French skeptics (IPACO) did an in-depth investigation of the McMinnville photos. They began with the usual description of the line of sight to the object in each photo, presumed suspension methods, etc. They concluded that the object is a small model.

More interesting is the second part of the report, completed two months after the first part: Evidence of a Suspension Thread (page 29). They do not claim to detect the suspension thread directly, but instead statistically:
The basic idea is that if there are traces of a thread in a picture’s pixels, above an object hanging from this thread, and if this trace is « buried in noise » within the sky’s background (noise due to atmospheric diffusion and/or to the digitizing process), it should be possible to increase the signal-to-noise ratio thus uncovering the thread, by summing pixels along columns parallel to the thread.
They concluded, "For the TRNT1 picture, the presence of a negative peak (thread darker than the sky) was clearly observed which matched exactly to the supposed attachment point, with a significant difference of 2,38 sigma, for a tilt angle equal to -11°.... Application of the same method to the second picture TRNT2 provided comparable results, with a tilt angle of -10.29 ° and results of over 2.5 sigma."

 Bruce Maccabee and Brad Sparks have written responses to the French report. Maccabee objects that "Regarding the photogrammetric analysis,  I showed that the sighting lines did not cross under the wires and they did not refute this." This comment is a bit odd, because

A) nearly everybody else who has investigated the question has come to the opposite conclusion, including William K. Hartmann and Claude Poher. The IPACO report says "The relative position may obviously be considered as nearly constant, which can only be explained, from a geometric point of view, if the object was effectively hanging from the wire OR if its movement between both shots was following precisely its sighting line."

B) The IPACO report based their measurements largely on a map provided by Maccabee.

Sparks objects that 
"These French debunkers have incomprehensibly asserted that the UFO and wires are "black bodies" to which they apply "radiometry" -- which is the science of measurement of heat.  They claim to derive an estimate of distance from this. They apparently have no idea what they are talking about.... They have confused photometry (light measurements) with radiometry (heat measurements from black body heat radiation, thermal emissions)." 
Technically, he is correct.  However Sparks does not consider the possibility that the problem is simply the result of a bad translation from the original French. If you read the paper, it is obvious that they are using the word "radiometric" to mean the brightness of the pixels, and not any supposed heat emitted by the object. Their measuring technique is valid, even though the English description of it isn't. If the "French Debunkers" had substituted the proper word  "densitometric"  for "radiometric", and "dark bodies" (meaning, opaque and not self-luminous) for "black bodies" (which has a very specific meaning in physics), the objection vanishes.

Now, another researcher has weighed in. Jay J. Walter of Phoenix, Arizona, the author of the suspense horror novel Blood Tree, did his own investigation. Working from high-resolution scans of first-generation prints that I sent him (scans now posted on the Internet Archives for anyone to research), he did his own photo enhancement using the venerable program ArtGem. He said that even using a 4.2ghz quad core 64bit processor with 8 gigs of system RAM, he was still getting "out of memory" errors. However, he persevered, and produced the following photos, appearing to detect portions of a suspension thread above the object in both photos. The purported string cannot be seen across its entire length, which is consistent with the French skeptics only being able to detect it statistically. It is significant that Walter and the French team were working with different scans.
Jay J. Walter's possible detection of a suspension string in the first Trent photo, its position illustrated by the drawn-in string in the bottom photo.
Walter's suggestion of a string in the second Trent photo. I had to convert these photos from TIFF to JPG format in order to post them, which loses some details.

Walter's apparent string seen in its proper orientation.
Another of Walter's purported discoveries is what he calls a "logo," an apparently flat area with two holes, where it appears a logo plate might be attached, or possibly even a handle. Is this real, or is it simply  "pareidolia" - seeing a pattern where none exists? Confirmation is needed.
Did something once attach here to the object in Trent photo #2?

Walter suggests that the object in question is an appliance motor shroud, approximately eight inches in diameter. "I think Trent walked to the garage one evening, tied a string to an appliance motor shroud via an old bolt, tossed the shroud over a wire and tied the other end of the string to an anchor near the ground, then took the two pictures.  Logical, practical, and so much less effort for him than other theories.  People just do what they do and Trent wasn't going to go to too much effort just to fool his banker buddy."

But wait - there's more! In the words of UFO researcher Martin Shough on UFO Updates, "I am hearing rumours that certain researchers, one of whom is no stranger to this List, are on the brink of publishing an analysis which they believe is proof of a hoax. I have it on the authority of a third party - a 'usually reliable source' - that cunning digital enhancement has revealed the presence of a string or wire support."

I have been in contact with this Mystery Researcher, who has not authorized me or anyone else to reveal his findings. He was planning to write a book exposing three major UFO photo cases as hoaxes, one of course being Trent. However, he says this plan has been abandoned, and he is  uncommunicative about the details of his work. I do not have proof of what he says about the string. However from the seriousness with which he has undertaken other investigations, I am inclined to believe that he has indeed found it.

Do these new findings finally debunk the Trent photos? They would, provided they can be independently confirmed by other researchers, using other high-resolution scans from first-generation prints, or else the original negatives. Until then, people will continue to argue about such matters as the gauge of the wires, and whether the model, if it were a model, would have to be five or six inches in diameter.

                                                              (updated October 5, 2014)


  1. "They did not immediately tell anyone about the photos, or rush them off to be developed. Instead, the film containing the invaluable flying saucer photos was left in the camera until Mother's Day, so that a few unexposed frames would not be wasted."

    This says it all. At least I think it does!

    If the Trents believed for one moment that they had photographed a genuine 'flying saucer', which had by then come to mean a visiting ET craft, they would NOT have delayed getting it developed, whatever the number of spare frames remaining.

    Alternatively, we can say that if the Trents believed they had photographed a supersecret US craft flying over their farmhouse, they would surely have sought some sort of official permission before publishing the photos.

    What did Blue Book say about these photos, if anything? What did Trent make, financially, out of them? (LIFE had exclusive rights maybe). Or was it done purely for publicity?

    On the other hand, if it is suspended by a thin wire, Trent was taking a big risk of this being detected in some future analysis. Did he really think he could get away with it?

    However you look at it, it seems we never get to a firm conclusion on these photos. All I can say is that it is inconceivable that an advanced ET race from Zeti Reticuli would travel light years through space in something as simple as the object shown. Perhaps it was a remote controlled craft (from the mother ship) sent to spy on a lonely farmer and his wife. Perhaps.

    Most strange, either way.

    1. I'd love to believe these were evidence of UFO's (and hence "aliens") but the wires really do muddy the waters.

      I wonder why there's only two photos. The UFO hung around long enough for him to find his camera, and if he thought it was something unworldly, he might well have taken more photos. Conversely, if he thought it was some sort of secret government operation, he probably would have taken no photos and not said a word about it.

      I don't understand what risk there would be in publicizing this. Are hoaxes illegal? I hope not.

      Personally speaking I do think something strange is going on with UFOs, but whether that means "aliens" is an open question. Two fuzzy pictures taken nearly 70 years ago do nothing to answer that question.

  2. "However from the seriousness with which he has undertaken other investigations, I am inclined to believe that he has indeed found it."
    Now that is science!
    Bad UFO!
    Posted in case my original post didn't make it thru.

  3. A hoax is like a joke, there has to be a punch line, or in this case a reveal. Otherwise, what's the point? Where these people known as jokers? If not than the time spent on investigation of a possible hoax is a waste of time. Who got the joke, to whom was the hoax revealed? Your mystery source? Did the Trent's make any money off this? Unlikely much as even diehard UFO authors and research barely make money from their interest s, or so I hear. So what's the motive behind a hoax.
    Also as I look at this picture with my unaided, untrained eye, the connections you claim are there don't seem to be there. How good where the Trent's at faking photos, because this obviously required skill and practice to get it right. Any evidence to support the idea this was not thier first joke? IMHO, what you have at the end of the day is exactly what this seems to be: an unidentifiable flying object. There is no evidence to support either the ET or hoax conclusion.

    1. IVR:
      You have valid points. The motive was most likely publicity, not financial return. I have never read anything of the Trent's background, or whether he had done similar hoaxes before. Why did he never confess to it? Did he ever give talks about it?

      But it still has an aura of mystery, e.g. why would a visiting ET craft choose an isolated farmhouse? We can discuss the technicalities of the photos forever (as some have done), but in the end we are still left with an unsolved mystery. Virtually back to square one.

  4. What a bunch of baloney, IVR.

    A hoax is not a joke or even like a joke. "A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth." And when one manufactures a flying-saucer fairy tale to support the manufactured photo "evidence" of something extraordinary, as the Trents did, it's called a hoax. It's pretty straightforward.

    The Trents were repeaters. Paul Trent made a couple of silly "flying saucer" photos by dangling an old truck mirror by thread from wires--it required no great photographic skill. Then he and his fantasy-prone wife created a flying-saucer scenario as a context for the phony photos. That's called a hoax. Got it now?

    They lied about the time of day when the photos were made, as Robert Sheaffer showed in 1969. And Hartmann, Sheaffer and Carpenter showed that the truck mirror barely moves if at all between photos--contrary to the Trents' scenario, the mirror wasn't flying at all! It didn't go anywhere over time, it just "hung" around while Trent came out and looked, then went back into the house for his camera, and then to the backyard to photograph an object that was purportedly in the distance out front and going away. Who buys that improbable story as a context for the photos--given that they show the mirror doesn't move between photos?

    Any fool with a camera in 1950 could fake a "flying saucer" photo and very many did; farmer Paul Trent's silly photos just happened to make it to LIFE magazine. The Telephone-Register sold newspapers, LIFE sold magazines, and Paul Trent got a bit fame--the very same reasons that people have been telling flying-saucer fairy tales and faking aerial-fairy photos for the last century: money and attention.

    There's nothing about these photos that's the least bit otherworldly except in the fevered minds of those completely disposed to the ET "flying saucer" myth and "UFO" collective delusion. Even Trent said he thought it was an advanced test aircraft--the most popular explanation for flying-saucer reports in 1950--not a spacecraft from another world. There not one bit of evidence for an ET origin.

    IVR, even the photos of the Trents made by a LIFE photographer sent to follow up on the story seem to suggest that he suspected or knew very well that it was all a goofy hoax. Just as any rational adult seeing the photos in LIFE did since they knew there weren't any real flying saucers. It was never even a question.

    Proving that to victims of the "UFO" delusion and ETH is another thing entirely.

  5. What was my baloney exactly?
    My point is most people don't do something like this without a gotcha kind of moment. Sometimes it takes years, remember that most famous of Lochness monster photos? It was revealed as a hoax decades afterwards. These things are no fun to hoax if you don't let someone in on it. Bigfoot hoaxes have a youtube out let, did these people plan on a magazine picking up the story? I can't tell by what I have read.
    At your implied suggestion I read R. Sheafers report. He never says they lied by the way, I suspect.that's your anger issue.
    And, you seem to make the claim that they were fantasy prone. I also don't know where that came from; what is your source?
    Bottom line is that there are so many caveats and assumptions in Sheafers report that there is no way to honestly tell if that is a mirror, a hat, debris or whatever. My take on all this is that so many people hate the idea of an ET craft in our skies that they will spend countless hours researching dead ends. And that may be the best reason of all for a hoax.

  6. Found in the McMinnville's city archives...

    McMinnville Police Department


    [ ] - Traffic violation
    [X] - Mechanical violation

    Date: 5/11/1950
    Time: 6:30PM
    Name: PAUL TRENT
    Vehicle: TRUCK

    Description of Violation:

    Issuing Officer:
    E.T. KRAFT

  7. I am sure officer Kraft's patrol car casts a long shadow.

  8. This picture is on a netflux ufo program from 2016. It us still being told as it is so true. Lol

  9. A step ladder is quite a feature in the LIFE article.

  10. I never understood the preoccupation with the Trent photographs. Is it just me, or does the profile of the UFO not resemble what someone in 1950 would have thought a UFO would look like? An old-timey UFO.
    But who knows, maybe craft capable of traveling light years would happen to resemble the old junk lying around in a rural Oregon barn.
    I grew up in rural Washington State in the 1960s and 70s with all sorts of farming equipment around, and could have put together any number of UFOs that would have looked better and more modern than the Trent UFOs. Google “farming disk on image search for a small sample.


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