Seeing is no longer believing-digital image
alteration gets easier
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1998. First
published in Computer Player, February, 1998
In the last verse of the boomer classic ?Heard it
Through the Grapevine?,
Marvin Gaye (and later countless others) sings: ?Believe half of what
see, believe none of what you hear?.
But even before the Motown hit, long before personal
computers and digital
photographs, it was clear that seeing wasn?t necessarily believing.
It didn?t take long after the invention of photography
darkroom techniques were used to recreate history?as early as 1861, a
scandal resulted from a composite photograph placing the head of the
of Naples on another woman?s nude body. When Joseph Stalin took power
the Soviet Union, rival Leon Trotsky vanished from historical photos
as a famous shot of hero Vladimir Lenin?s May 1920 address to a crowd.
But just as personal computers democratized skills
and page design, the last decade has brought the possibility of photo
onto millions of desktops. Add increasingly affordable digital scanners
and cameras to more and more powerful computers and software, and
anything you can imagine can be made to look as if it was captured onto
Some personal favorites:
? Not long after film star Demi Moore appeared, naked
and very pregnant
on the cover of Vogue Magazine, U.S. satirical magazine Spy featured
husband, Bruce Willis, on its September, 1991 cover, in an identical
seemingly just as naked, and just as pregnant.
? A 1994 cover of the much more serious Scientific American offered
a photo of Abraham Lincoln, arm and arm with Marilyn Monroe. Inside,
demonstrated how, using an off-the-shelf Macintosh with easily
software, they were able to bring together the president (who died in
with the film star (who died in 1962).
? A 1997 ad for Diesel jeans, seemed to offer a behind-the-scenes look
at 1945?s historic Yalta conference, showing world leaders Churchill,
and Roosevelt cavorting with a group of jeans-clad young women.
a fitting revenge for Stalin?s earlier attempts at photo-manipulating
No longer limited to trained professionals using
photo manipulation has even become a subject for high school projects.
At Vancouver?s Total Education program, for example, grade 11 and 12
working on humble 386 and 486 computers, a $200 flatbed scanner, and a
$140 Connectix QuickCam camera practice using Corel PhotoPaint
They quickly learn to add pictures of themselves into historical
though they find it?s more difficult to adjust lighting and shadows to
make it look good. (That?s student Mat Lee following Mahatma
on the famous Salt March for Indian independence).
Manipulating photographic reality can be great fun,
and has been used
to good effect for advertising and entertainment. The ease with which
can be distorted poses problems, however, for publications which
hope for a reputation for accuracy. After, in 1982, moving the
Great Pyramids closer together to better fit the size of the cover,
Geographic swore off photo manipulation; they want their readers to
that any photos published reflect something as it actually exists, and
are limiting digital image processing to correcting colours or removing
lens flares from photos.
Many of our daily newspapers, however, have less
The Vancouver Sun, for example, prides itself on being the world?s
all digital newspaper?all photos are taken on digital cameras, edited
processed digitally, and sent to a state-of-the-art press for printing.
They have not yet accompanied the digital hardware with a written
setting guidelines for photo manipulation.
When an October 24, 1997 article titled ?Reeling in
the Bucks? highlighted
feature films being shot in Vancouver, for example, the Sun printed a
of that city?s North Shore mountains, complete with Hollywood-style
spelling out ?Vancouver?.
Similarly, after the prestigious Vancouver Club voted
to continue limiting
membership to men, the paper published a photo of the Club?s
building, festooned with ?No Girls Allowed? banners, seemingly painted
on bed sheets, hanging out the windows. These digital reconstructions
reality were identified to the readers, simply as ?Photo Illustrations?
in tiny print underneath the photos.
Sun Photo Editor Nick Didlick sometimes feels like
he?s forced to conduct
a one-man crusade to protect readers against the intrusion of photo
He said that photo-manipulation software like ?Adobe PhotoShop was one
of the worst tools to come into the newspaper?it?s filled with bells
whistles and everyone wants to play?. According to Didlick, ?changing a
photo is the same as changing a quote?, and doesn?t belong on the news
or sports pages of Vancouver?s paper of record.
He?s less concerned about the blatantly obvious
along with the ?Photo Illustration? byline should be obvious to the
Instead, he expresses concern that ?lots more happens every day that is
less identifiable, and isn?t clearly labeled as an illustration?.
would like to see his paper have a written policy, and publish it
for the readers. While the Seattle Times and a number of other US
have such a policy, Didlick isn?t aware of any major Canadian
that have let their staff and readers formally know their standards for
As the Sun?s editorial artist, Vic Bonderoff is the
he added the ?Vancouver? sign to the photo of the city skyline, for
He agrees that sometimes he?s working on the edge of a slippery slope.
There?s always a danger of adding subtle editorial comments to a
but mentioned that with tight deadlines, he typically ?doesn?t have
to think? of these issues. He noted the case of a Newsweek photo that
O. J. Simpson?s skin tones during his trial, non-verbally heightening
The Sun?s Managing Editor, Paul Sullivan, expressed
some agreement with
these concerns. ?We?re quite sensitive about manipulation, and try to
it at all costs. We?re not interested in fooling the readers?, he
adding that he too would like to have a formal policy once they?ve
out the technical details of their still-new hardware.
Prior to the digital era, Marvin Gaye thought we could
of what we see? now, that?s no longer the case. Now that seeing is no
believing, more than ever, we need to be able to critically judge the
of our information.