When Photographs Lie

If the Empire State Building hadn't been moved, it would have stuck out of the sportscaster's head. So Gil Cowley, former art director for New York's WCBS-TV, had the landmark building shifted four blocks uptown on the huge skyline backdrop photo he built for his anchor set. His tool was a Quantel Graphic Paintbox, just one of several computer technologies that are changing the face of photography. "It's just so easy to manipulate images and objects for the effect you want," Cowley says. That's wonderful for art and advertising. But with more than 700 companies now possessing advanced electronic-imaging systems, the implications for photojournalism are scary.

Deceptive photography dates back all the way to the 1840s. The "histories" of entire nations, like Stalin's Soviet Union, have been revised by scissors and glue. In the 1950s, allies of Sen. Joseph McCarthy doctored a photo to make it seem as if a senator was talking to a communist. In the 1980s, an official White House photo of President Ronald Reagan in the hospital had the intravenous tube cropped out so that the public would not see how sick he was. For generations, armies of pimples have been magically airbrushed away. Even last year's famous case of Oprah Winfrey's head being placed on Ann-Margret's body in TV Guide could have been done years ago. It's actually a realistic drawing copied from pictures, not a photograph.

But if "the camera doesn't lie" was always a fallacy, it's now both easier to change the essence of photographs and harder to detect the process. Simple alterations, such as removing a diet Coke can from a picture of a Pulitzer Prize winner (which the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did last year), can be accomplished with a series of key strokes on the widely available Scitex Response system. The process involves giving "pixels"--electronic squares--a binary code that makes them easy to adjust. Layout design, cropping, sizing and other changes are made quicker, cheaper and infinitely more flexible.

More complicated matching of resolution and color, which once required a technically trained artist, now merely entails more elaborate digitized systems. it/Greenberg Associates was hired by NEWSWEEK to assemble the strange cast of characters pictured below. The graphic artist, Robert Bowen, spent about eight hours with Pixar and Sun systems hooked up to an Apple Macintosh to create a lifelike composite color photo impossible only a couple of years ago. Within a few more years, some form of electronic imaging will be inexpensive enough for wide use with personal computers.

The potential for abuse is obvious. "You have to be like a hawk to keep the technology from taking advantage of you," says M. C. Marden, picture editor of People magazine. But the long-term effect may be more insidious. For 150 years, the photographic image has been viewed as more persuasive than written accounts as a form of "evidence." Now this authenticity is breaking down under the assault of technology. In an absorbing new book, "In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography" (158 pages. Aperture. $15. 95), Fred Ritchin a former photo editor of The New York Times Magazine, asks: "What would happen if the photograph appeared to be a straightforward recording of physical reality, but could no longer be relied upon to depict actual people and events?"

No 'proof': Ritchin's answer is frightening. Take China's leaders, who last year tried to bar photographers from exposing their lies about the Beijing massacre. In the future, the Chinese or others with something to hide wouldn't even worry about photographers. With "electronic photography they could deny the veracity of the newly malleable image," Ritchin says. In other words, pictures, like words, would be "proof" of little. Imagine how this would have affected, say, the Kurt Waldheim case. The Austrian president consistently denied his Nazi past until presented with the photographic proof in 1986, at which point he admitted that the picture was real. Future Waldheims could plausibly claim they had been placed in compromising positions by computer. While the old cut-and-paste method was easily detectable, especially on color photos, electronic re-imaging is not.

Photo editors first confronted this brave new world in 1982, when National Geographic came under fire for moving two Egyptian pyramids closer together so that they would fit on a vertical cover. Time magazine apologized in 1987 when a story about espionage at the American Embassy in .Moscow was illustrated with a studio shot of a Marine, wrongly implying that the picture was taken at the embassy. Last year NEWSWEEK regretted making it seem, in a photo, that "Rain Man" costars Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman were posing together when, in fact, one was in Hawaii and the other in New York. Ben Blank, art director for ABC News, says he routinely altered still images (for example, straightening jacket wrinkles) until a "re-creation" of accused spy Felix Bloch passing a briefcase made the network reexamine its practices.

Unfortunately, news organizations have few guidelines for use of the new technology. A famous 1984 picture of marathoner Mary Decker falling down was marred slightly by an antenna in the frame. The antenna was left in the picture in Life and was removed in Time, according to Michele Stephenson, Time's picture editor. Newspapers are generally stricter. A car antenna that distracted from a picture of Marion Barry's wife was consciously left in a picture that ran in USA Today, says Larry Nylund, deputy managing editor: "We don't alter photographs."

But USA Today uses other little-examined new photographic technologies, such as "frame grabbing," where the picture is taken off TV (always with a credit, Nylund says), and "still video cameras." The latter eliminate the need for film processing on late-breaking stories like the Oscars or World series and allow pictures to get into the paper in as little as 10 minutes. While video stills won't soon replace 35-mm film (which is also dramatically improving), they may soon be easier to fake: there's no negative to prove what the original shot looked like.

Beyond technological change, the deeper problem is a continual blurring of lines between commercialism and journalism. "Zipper heads" (star's face, model's body) that are acceptable in the artificial world of movie posters and display advertising take on another meaning in editorial pages--even as jokes (e.g. Atlanta magazine's cover spoofing the Rob Lowe sex-tape scandal, which many readers believed was the actor himself). So do lesser alterations, like extending backgrounds or keying up colors. "As feature magazines do it more and more, it will be harder to hold the line," says Time's Stephenson. Tina Brown, editor of Vanity Fair, who last year authorized the creation of a blue-sky background for a Melanie Griffith cover, speaks for many editors when she draws a distinction between feature and news pictures. "I would never do it on a journalism piece," she says referring to a recent political profile.

Unfortunately, this common distinction degrades the whole notion of journalism; it implies that the integrity of images applies only to some narrowly defined notion of "news." Editors need not opt for unflattering pictures to agree that fakery--even on the food page--pollutes the whole publication. Like athletes on steroids, enhanced photographs may perform better, but at bottom they are liars.