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 you 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 before crude darkroom techniques were used to recreate history?as early as 1861, a political scandal resulted from a composite photograph placing the head of the Queen of Naples on another woman?s nude body. When Joseph Stalin took power in the Soviet Union, rival Leon Trotsky vanished from historical photos such as a famous shot of hero Vladimir Lenin?s May 1920 address to a crowd.

But just as personal computers democratized skills like typesetting and page design, the last decade has brought the possibility of photo editing onto millions of desktops. Add increasingly affordable digital scanners and cameras to more and more powerful computers and software, and virtually anything you can imagine can be made to look as if it was captured onto film.

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 her husband, Bruce Willis, on its September, 1991 cover, in an identical pose, 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, they demonstrated how, using an off-the-shelf Macintosh with easily available software, they were able to bring together the president (who died in 1865) 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, Stalin, and Roosevelt cavorting with a group of jeans-clad young women. (Perhaps a fitting revenge for Stalin?s earlier attempts at photo-manipulating history).

No longer limited to trained professionals using high-end equipment, photo manipulation has even become a subject for high school projects. At Vancouver?s Total Education program, for example, grade 11 and 12 students, working on humble 386 and 486 computers, a $200 flatbed scanner, and a $140 Connectix QuickCam camera practice using Corel PhotoPaint software. They quickly learn to add pictures of themselves into historical photos? though they find it?s more difficult to adjust lighting and shadows to make it look good.  (That?s student Mat Lee following Mahatma Gandhi 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 reality can be distorted poses problems, however,  for publications which hope for a reputation for accuracy. After, in 1982,  moving the Egyptian Great Pyramids closer together to better fit the size of the cover, National Geographic swore off photo manipulation; they want their readers to trust 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 strict guidelines. The Vancouver Sun, for example, prides itself on being the world?s first all digital newspaper?all photos are taken on digital cameras, edited and processed digitally, and sent to a state-of-the-art press for printing. They have not yet accompanied the digital hardware with a written policy 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 photo of that city?s North Shore mountains, complete with Hollywood-style letters 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 turn-of-the-century building, festooned with ?No Girls Allowed? banners, seemingly painted on bed sheets, hanging out the windows. These digital reconstructions of 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 manipulation. 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 and 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 manipulations?these, along with the ?Photo Illustration? byline should be obvious to the readers. Instead, he expresses concern that ?lots more happens every day that is less identifiable, and isn?t clearly labeled as an illustration?. Didlick would like to see his paper have a written policy, and publish it annually for the readers. While the Seattle Times and a number of other US papers have such a policy, Didlick isn?t aware of any major Canadian newspapers that have let their staff and readers formally know their standards for photo manipulation.

As the Sun?s editorial artist, Vic Bonderoff is the photo manipulator? he added the ?Vancouver? sign to the photo of the city skyline, for example. 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 picture, but mentioned that with tight deadlines, he typically ?doesn?t have time to think? of these issues. He noted the case of a Newsweek photo that darkened O. J. Simpson?s skin tones during his trial, non-verbally heightening the race factor.

The Sun?s Managing Editor, Paul Sullivan, expressed some agreement with these concerns. ?We?re quite sensitive about manipulation, and try to avoid it at all costs. We?re not interested in fooling the readers?, he commented, adding that he too would like to have a formal policy once they?ve worked out the technical details of their still-new hardware.

Prior to the digital era, Marvin Gaye thought we could believe half of what we see? now, that?s no longer the case. Now that seeing is no longer believing, more than ever, we need to be able to critically judge the sources of our information.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan