by Andy Roberts & David Clarke
Originally published in Fortean Times 235 (May 2008)
The halcyon saucer days of the 1950s and ‘60s were the crucible in which modern UFOlogy was forged. This was a time when the most outrageous witness testimony was uncritically accepted and flaunted as evidence that ‘they’ were here. In a visual age, sci-fi films and photographs, such as those produced by George Adamski, played an important role in establishing the image of ‘flying saucers’ in the collective imagination. In the UK, four classic black and white saucer snaps set the template for the pictorial future of the subject. Stephen Darbishire’s was the first, taken in 1954 in theLake District. Two fuzzy prints appeared to show a classic ‘Venusian Scout Ship’ identical, some claimed, to those taken by Adamski.
Alex Birch, age 14, took the next picture of a fleet of saucers over Sheffield in 1962. The two remaining photographs are those by Gordon Faulkner, 17, of the Warminster ‘Thing’ and by Stephen Pratt, 15, of a fleet of saucer over a chip shop in Conisbrough,Yorkshire, during 1966.
All four images are highly contentious. All four were produced by teenagers. Darbishire, who was just 13 at the time, has since become a successful landscape painter. For years he claimed the photo was ‘genuine’ then recently stated it was a hoax. Then he promptly changed his mind and claimed it was genuine again. In short, UFO photographs are a minefield for the sceptical UFOlogist. Darbishire and the others have all had their day in the glare of the media and the saucer press but their photos were one offs, never to be repeated events.
The case of Alex Birch is somewhat different. The full story of the 1962 photograph can be followed here. After the media furore surrounding this photograph and his visit to the Air Ministry where the print was examined by experts Alex, then a schoolboy, faded from the public eye. But flying saucers, and UFOlogists, continued to haunt him. He was taunted at school and found it difficult to find a girlfriends as everywhere he went he was known as ‘the lad who had photographed flying saucers.’ Eventually, in 1972, he decided enough was enough. Now 24 years old, he contacted the Daily Express and confessed it had all been a hoax. He even appeared on TV with the pane of glass on which the ‘saucers’ had been painted. For ten years he had fooled his family, friends and even the Air Ministry who had them tagged as ‘ice crystals’.
The ruse, for according to Alex it was a ruse, worked. Alex knew the saucers were real but his manipulation of the media removed the heat; interest in him diminished and he was able to concentrate on building a career and supporting a family. His interest in photography remained though and over the years he became an accomplished practitioner, entering and wining numerous competitions. Meanwhile his iconic flying saucer photograph continued to be reproduced in books and magazines worldwide. In 1998 Alex, who no longer even possessed a copy of the original negative, reluctantly decided to step back into the public spotlight to reclaim his own copyright on the image. He also wanted the world to know the truth: he really did see, and photograph, flying saucers in 1962. After a short flurry of media and UFOlogical interest, his U-turn was again quickly forgotten. Alex didn’t care who believed him and, now a grandfather, he believed his adventures in UFOlogy were now a thing of the past.
Until Tuesday, 27 January 2004. On that evening Alex was sitting in his bungalow watching TV with his wife when it began snowing heavily. At the time Alex was trying to think of a suitable photograph to enter in his local photographic society’s competition and this unexpected snowfall made him think he might get an unusual night time shot. Leaving the house at9.15 pm, without even telling his wife, Alex drove through heavy snow to the market town of Retford, in rural Nottinghamshire, where he parked in the square. The thick snow and the relatively late hour meant the square was completely deserted and silent. Alex spent some time taking a variety of photographs of the square, road and buildings that were covered in snow and reflecting lights from lampposts and buildings. He was using 35mm Fujia Sensia 200ASA reversal film (a slide film), as he is not particularly enamoured of digital photography.
After using the roll of thirty six frames Alex returned home and shortly afterwards sent the film for processing. When the slides returned he spent some time looking at them on a small battery operated viewer, trying to identify a suitable slide for entry in his local photography club’s competition. He found three shots that were perfect and then noticed an odd image on one of the slides. To his amazement when he looked closer he saw a UFO, a saucer shaped UFO at that, just to the side ofRetfordTown Hall. The Town Hall clock fixes the image in time at 23.08.
We had taken a great interest in Alex’s involvement with UFOs and UFOlogy and he was keen to tell us about his new photograph. We were, naturally, skeptical. After all, the chances of someone taking a photograph of a genuinely anomalous UFO once are massive. To do so twice in a lifetime would be, well, Fortean. We recalled the furore over Alex’s 1962 photograph, his 1972 confession and his subsequent revelation that it was genuine after all. What was going on?
Alex wasn’t going to let the problems which plagued his 1962 photograph affect this new one and he decided to eschew any publicity. He just wanted to know what he had caught on film. The first time we saw the UFO was on a copy of a slide he sent us. We thought it was obviously a lens flare; there are numerous lights on lamps and buildings and even though we couldn’t prove it, a lens flare of some kind seemed to be the only logical conclusion. Most tellingly Alex did not see the object whilst taking the photographs and it is axiomatic that an image which is noticed only after processing is almost always a bird, lens flare, camera or film fault. Alex disagreed and told us he firmly believed the image on the film was of an object in the sky: a real UFO.
Despite the prospect of fresh media attention and money from this photograph Alex wasn’t interested. He wanted to get to the bottom of it privately and, rather than trust the photograph to the care of the UFO community, of whom he has a profound mistrust, he set about investigating it himself.SheffieldUniversity’s Department of Physics and Astronomy ruled out any celestial or astronomical phenomena and local airfields confirmed there were no aircraft over Retford that night. He then took the slide to the Kodak Laboratories inLincoln. Their technical analysis ruled out any possibility of lens flare, double exposure, drying stains, re-touching or a host of other possibilities. Indeed, the Kodak analysis found that the UFO image had the same density pattern, colour and grain as the surrounding picture. This suggested to the Kodak analysts that whatever ‘it’ was, it was in the sky when photographed. Robert Smith of Kodak’s labs went so far as to write on the back of the photograph, ‘This image has not been altered or manipulated in any way.’
Then he tried his old bete noir, the Ministry of Defence. After several phone calls to the MoD’sWhitehall building Alex made an appointment to see the UFO desk officer, Linda Unwin. She suggested a meeting and told Alex that ‘defence experts’ would be interested in viewing the slide. A meeting was duly arranged for9 March 2004 and Alex asked Andy Roberts to accompany him. It is highly unusual for a UFO witness to be interviewed by MoD personnel and even more unusual for them to be invited to visit the MoD Main Building. The last time this had happened was in 1962 when Alex, then a schoolboy, visited the Air Ministry with his father and allowed experts to examine his Box Brownie camera and his other picture of ‘flying saucers.’
The 2004 visit did not go to plan. Alex and Andy were met in the reception area by Linda Unwin and a colleague, who seemed to be unaware of the promised ‘meeting’ or the possibility of defence experts viewing the slide. She was happy to take a copy for analysis, but Alex and Andy got no further than the ornate reception area. Alex believes the meeting was cancelled because he had not told them he was bringing guests (his son in law was also present).
In a follow-up letter Unwin asked for a copy of the negative for scrutiny by a ‘defence imagery analyst.’ Using the Freedom of Information Act we discovered that a copy of the slide was sent by Unwin’s branch to the MoD’s Defence Geographic and Imagery Intelligence Agency (DGIA), based at RAF Brampton in Cambridgeshire. Experts there analyse aerial photographs and other military-sourced images for intelligence purposes. In this case, Alex was told that UFO photographs are ‘not within the normal course of work’ for the imagery experts ‘but [they] have agreed to fit this in around essential defence work.’ The Graphics and Digital Imaging Section completed their assessment on2 August 2004. A scan at 2,400dpi allowed them to investigate ‘at greater magnification the structure of the anomaly’ but found no indication of reflections or lens flares. The brief report ends with these words: ‘No definitive conclusions can be gathered from evidence submitted, however, it may be coincidental that the illuminated plane of the object passes through the centre of the frame, indicating a possible lens anomaly e.g. a droplet of moisture.’
Alex claims he has subsequently had other meetings and conversations with MoD personnel, but maintains that neither he nor they are any closer to resolving what he has captured on film. When we visited Alex in the spring of 2007 he was enthusiastic about his new photograph and remained convinced that, based on the evidence from Kodak and other experts, he had captured an unknown aerial object on film. But now there was more. Alex had previously told us that he had, over the years, been subject to what can only be described as psychic phenomena. He had been plagued by poltergeists and bizarre audio and electromagnetic anomalies. Lights in the sky appeared to follow him around and on one occasion he had been struck by lightning. These phenomena had been witnessed by other members of his family who were happy to confirm it to us. Alex was now telling us that there was something else unusual about his second saucer photograph. He had experienced flashbacks to that snowy night in Retford; flashbacks involving visions of a gigantic saucer hovering over the square. He also suspected there may have been a period of missing time.
What to make of all this? Is Alex a complete fantasist who has repeatedly tried to fool the media, UFO investigators and possibly his family for over 45 years? The simple fact is, we just don’t know. It would be easy to dismiss Alex as a hoaxer and a fantasist, partly because everyone ‘knows’ real UFOs don’t exist and partly because of his (later retracted) admission that he had hoaxed the 1962 photograph. But no-one could prove exactly how – if – his original photo was hoaxed and no-one, not even the MoD’s imagery experts can say with certainty what is on the photograph he took on 27 January 2004.
Alex has thought long and hard before allowing his second photograph to be revealed to a wider audience. He is not interested in public exposure or in financial gain, although this does not rule him out as a hoaxer. He is only concerned that his stories are told factually and objectively. As skeptical forteans we have known Alex for ten years and find him and his family to be completely normal, open and honest. We are perplexed. But there has to be an answer, now matter how prosaic or extraordinary. So what is it?
The Trickster figure is a fundamental fortean motif: someone, or some power, that delights in causing mayhem with the human perception of reality. Is the Trickster at work here, acting through Alex Birch? Or is Alex a serial liar, weaving his tales and photographs in and out of UFOlogy for almost 50 years? Or perhaps it’s all literally true, Alex has photographed genuine UFOs separated by 42 two years. I doubt we will ever know the absolute truth but we’ve had an immense amount of Fortean fun trying to find out and that, after all, is what it’s all about.
Copyright David Clarke and Andy Roberts 2008