MAKE-BELIEVE IN MCMINNVILLE:
FAMOUS 1950 UFO PHOTOS FAKED?
(originally published Dec 2012)
Found clues point to a prank behind the most cherished UFO photographs in history. For over six decades the two images taken by Paul Trent of McMinnville, Oregon have continued to generate great debate about their authenticity. But investigation now indicates that the two Trent images were likely ones of invention. If so, how did a farmer fool so many for so long?
Paul Trent and his wife Evelyn were farming folks who lived in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest. On May 11, 1950 Evelyn claimed that she had spotted a disk-like UFO in their backyard and she called out for her husband to retrieve the camera inside their home. Paul managed to run inside, run back out, and then snap two photos of a mysterious aerial object. Those images even today are emblazoned in the minds of those with UFO interests.
THE PHOTOS AND THE LIMITS OF PHOTO ANALYSIS
Though many UFO researchers (and even the Condon Committee) could see no obvious evidence of hoaxed images, other researchers did.
The essential fact is that the two photographs are gray and grainy. They are of low resolution and they are produced from a simple box camera. Endless techniques, technologies, enhancements and enlargements have been applied to test the veracity of the images by many individuals over many years to varying interpretations. But in real life one cannot always make lemonade out of a lemon. Simply, the information that is gleaned from a given image can only be as good as the image. And these are poor images from which to work. Conclusively determining whether the object was suspended or thrown, or whether the UFO is actually a rear view mirror, a small scale model or a Dual record changer spindle part from 1940, or whether it is indeed an actual full-sized unknown aerial, cannot be accomplished solely by technical analysis.
What we can do is to investigate the photos in a far broader context. We must examine the sequence of events and other elements of the story.
THE BOY ON THE LADDER: DADDY’S LITTLE HELPER
Trent Son on Ladder Where
UFO Pictures Were Taken
The local McMinnville weekly newspaper, the Telephone Register, first published Trent's two photos on its front page of June 8 1950. Other news outlets nationwide quickly picked up the story and republished the photos, and in mid-June, LIFE magazine sent a photographer named Loomis Dean to the Trent farm. Among the many photos he took during his visit, which included other parts of the property, is one in which the Trents' son is posed standing on a ladder, taken from the same spot where his father had taken the famous photos. This has become known as the "ladder boy" photo. But this photo was not published in the LIFE article of June 26 1950--in fact, only one of Dean's photos was published, of Paul Trent wearing the camera he used to take the photos. When Dean's other photos taken during the LIFE photoshoot were made available online many years later, it was initially reported in error that the "ladder boy" photo had been taken from the same film roll as Trent's UFO photos (based on misinformation originating from space journalist James Oberg, who admitted to this).
Trent’s son atop a ladder means something.
One has to consider Dean's motivation. It is probable that he took the photo to 'pictorially hint' his belief that Paul Trent's
photos were hoaxed. Was Dean trying to visually document one way in which he thought that the prank might have been pulled? The photo would seem to say that he believed the boy and a ladder figured into the whole thing. It can be seen how an object could be thrown into the air from a ladder – or how a ladder could be used to suspend and sway a UFO model from the wires just above them. A ladder – positioned just right – would come in mighty handy for a hoax. And so too would be a trustable, mischievous son. It seems to make no other discernible sense for Dean to have taken a photo of Paul Trent's son on a ladder.
If Dean was just after a 'cute shot', why use the ladder, with the boy on it, in that specific spot? All the other Dean photos from this shoot seem to be 'editorial' in nature, not irrelevant goofs. Dean did not photograph irrelevance. This is shown in extensive review of his material. He photographed with purpose and for a reason – to tell a story pictorially.
The very fact that there is a ladder near the area of the alleged sighting itself raises concern. Dean would have needed to readily find a ladder in the immediate area in order to pose the Trent child atop it. He would not have traipsed the farm in search of one. This means that a ladder was likely always stored near the barn where the photos were taken.
THE SAUCER AND FORCED PERSPECTIVE
With the boy high atop the ladder under the wires near the barn, Paul Trent could practice his UFO shot by looking through his viewfinder, aiming and framing and composing the shot of the UFO to come. This would be a dry run. To have taken practice exposures using the actual UFO model would of course be too damning.
And Paul may have noticed something about kneeling when taking a picture – you can force the desired perspective. The essential thing missed by most is that they assume that Trent was standing upright when taking the photo. But Trent realized that you could create illusions from varying perspectives.
If Trent crouched down low, he could make the flying saucer look farther away than it really was:
By kneeling down even a little bit, and by shooting up from that position, he could force the perspective of the resulting photo to make it appear to have greater distance, yet remain reasonably sharp in focus.
And a disc-like object could easily have been thrown from that very ladder by his boy accomplice when the ladder was placed out of view of the shot. Or the ladder could have been used to suspend the object from the overhead wires. Take your pick. But whatever the choice, a ladder, a kid atop it and forced perspective somehow most certainly figure into the prank.
THE TRENTS WERE "REPEATERS"
Kim Trent Spencer, the Trent’s granddaughter, told journalist Kelly Kennedy of the Oregonian something of missed importance- the Trents were repeaters. That is, they had multiple UFO “experiences.” Kennedy reports:
“Kim remembers talking about the UFO pictures when she was young, but back then she didn’t know the details- but that her grandmother had said she has seen UFOs before.” And much ignored is that Mrs. Trent herself told the late researcher Philip Klass that she had seen UFOs both before and after the photos were taken.
As Jerry Seinfeld might say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”–but when you combine her prior UFO interest and prior sightings, her later sightings, her family discussions about UFOs- with the fact that Mrs. Trent reported being the first to see the photographed UFO- it is Mrs. Trent who should have been given more attention when investigating the photos. Paul finally got his wife a photograph of one of her coveted UFOs. She was certainly one darn lucky “repeat witness.”
A STRANGE NOTE LEFT
An intriguing handwritten note has surfaced that was composed by an apparent friend of Paul Trent’s. Trent passed in the late 1990s. The note (in male writing) was directed to Paul and was attached to one of Paul’s UFO photos. The note-writer signs off to Paul by simply using his initials, “CM”- indicating that they knew one another well.
“Paul, I wish I could have been shooting with you on this day in 1950. If it’s real then, whoa! But if you faked it that’s even cooler. We can’t really fake stuff anymore. Years later it’s all fake… or maybe it’s all real. Same difference. Thanks for this though.” x CM
I can’t of course agree with Paul’s letter-writer, CM. There is a big difference between what is fake and what is real- and it is our obligation to truth to distinguish the two. And strange that Trent’s own admirer CM cannot commit to certain belief that his friend is telling the truth.
THE REASON FOR THE HOAX?
The Trents have been described in the literature as having been “simple” farm folks. In 1950 there were only 6000 residents in McMinnville. And the Trents were actually out in the sparsely populated hinterlands of Yamhill County, running their ranch.
“Fun” during those times, in that kind of place, may have encompassed playing around with a new camera, wanting to outwit the city folks, involve the family in some UFO entertainment and satisfy a wife’s saucer interests.
Though Paul Trent is always spoken of in “neighborly terms” as being salt-of-the-earth, he was not an “unassuming man” without any interest in attention. He was not humble nor “meek and mild.” And he was not at all shy to pose for the press like an actor in these photos ops, ensuring his name in print and in history:
In fact it would be hard to fathom anyone doing today what Paul Trent did to publicize his photos: Just after the UFO photos were developed, Paul went to his local banker Frank Wortman and allowed them to be displayed in the bank’s window where a local passer-by and reporter would then spot them and have them published locally and wind up carried nationally. Paul never objected to the publicity.
This placement of photos in the window of a business reminds me of confessed UFO hoaxer and barber Ralph Ditter of Zanesville, Ohio. Ditter placed his UFO photos in the window of his barbershop. Ditter too involved his child. His little girl wanted to see a UFO. So Ditter “made one” using a toy wheel and captured it on camera for her.
And some say of the Trents that no money was ever sought for the photos. But in reality, in 1970, twenty years later and realizing their accrued value, the Trents insisted on having their negatives back from the McMinnville Telephone Register, which held them. According to Register Editor Philip Bladine, the Trents were not shy to note to him that "they had never been paid for the negatives and thus wanted them back.”
In the end, a farmer had some fun. He wanted us to join along in the entertainment of trying to solve his puzzle. Thank you for that, Paul Trent. Because I too have enjoyed playing make believe in McMinnville. It was fun while it lasted. And it certainly lasted a very long time.