Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Camera Never Lies...or does it?

Some people miss that people can lie with photographs: they can be photoshopped, cropped, misrepresented, etcetera.

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.

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.

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.

While some journalists detest computer manipulation of photographs, many editors and publishers are more than happy to take advantage of the potential to create the perfect image: and maybe sell a few more newspapers or magazines. And a disreputable rag like the mail ("if we are wrong, let them sue us") is more than willing to engage in that type of "journalism".

New technology has created the possibility to alter photographs, with precision and quality, in a completely undetectable manner. Digital manipulation of photographs is happening more and more often these days, usually going unnoticed and without comment.

Unfortunately, widespread understanding of the nature of photography has progressed little since Joseph Nicephore Niepce took the first photograph in 1826, nearly two centuries ago. Most people still voluntarily give photographs authoritative power, instead of understanding a photograph to be merely one individual's perspective of one moment in time.

The belief that "the camera never lies" betrays the fact that someone chose what, when, where, why, and how to photograph. Every step a photographer makes in taking a picture involves subjective choices, from the camera angle (looking up, looking down, eye level) to the framing (what to include and what to leave out) to the moment of exposure (when to shoot and when to wait). A photograph is always a decontextualized representation of reality recorded by a human being who makes conscious and even unconscious choices based on his or her cultural upbringing, experiences and biases. Joan Fontcuberta, editor of the Spanish magazine PhotoVision, insists that the phrase "manipulated photography" is a redundancy, since every photograph is manipulated.

Over a decade ago, magazine editor Fred Ritchin warned: "In order to contemplate its future role in society and the impact of new technologies, it is necessary to at least acknowledge that photography is highly interpretive, ambiguous, culturally specific, and heavily dependent upon contextualization by text and layout." For too long, too many media consumers have been laboring under the false assumption that photographs show the world "as it is" because the camera supposedly never lies. This myth of objectivity has contributed greatly to photography's power in society. Perhaps, given time, the practice of digital manipulation will shed light on the multiple manipulations that occur even before the shutter snaps.

Making the assumption that the camera never lies is a false one. Unless the picture is properly authenticated, it could well be a fake. Authentication requirements are somewhat stiffened where there is a strong argument that a photograph does not accurately reflect what it it purported to represent.

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