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Photographic shenanigans

What do Martha Stewart, Newsweek magazine and Adobe Photoshop have in common? Read on:

So, last night H comes home telling me about a NPR radio report detailing the latest cover of Newsweek magazine. Apparently the cover photo is an “illustration”. We had just received the periodical in the mail this evening, so out it comes and sure enough…..Martha’s head has been superimposed onto somebody else’s body. I must admit that it does trouble me to some extent given the cover caption which would lead the unaware to believe it was indeed a fitter, slimmer Martha who was ready to reclaim her life.

I get the point of the cover. Sure, this is intended to show an idea of Martha going through a reemergence after getting out of prison, and Martha was not yet available for photographs, but it IS a deception even though buried within the issue, they acknowledge it is an “illustration”. The problem is that Newsweek purports to be a news magazine and is reporting the story of Martha as news, not as PR. This is not a precedent as these issues have been covered before most notably with Time magazines coverage of OJ Simpson, making him appear more sinister through manipulation of the image which ignited a firestorm of criticism from journalists and the NAACP alike. In fact, in response to the OJ Simpson furor, Newsweek’s editor-in-chief was quoted as saying “We don’t mess around with news pictures”………..

The issue is that people tend to believe what they see and indeed form opinions and beliefs based upon what they perceive. This is a lesson the Republicans have adopted as gospel and the Democrats appear to have forgotten for the last decade. Throughout history of course, this has been the case and images are some of the most powerful motivators of belief. Going as far back as the Daguerreotype, (and arguably since the dawn of man) if you had an image to back up your claims, those claims were accepted as truth. This gave rise to a history of photographic manipulation whose goals are everything from enhancing truth to concealing or even completely fabricating fact through creation or juxtaposition of images as in the introductory photograph of the great white shark going after the swimmer.

There are as many reasons why images are manipulated and I should say that not all photographic manipulation is bad. In fact, much of the math and technology used for manipulating or even faking photos was developed to enhance and interpret photographic images back in the late 60’s and early 70’s for reasons I covered back in 2002 with my Digital Imaging and the Macintosh article (also, see Photoshop sidebar below).

So, while changing out heads is a common gambit to sell something to people, my question is what is Newsweek trying to sell us? What is the point of switching out Marthas head, not to mention the touch ups to further enhance her appearance? Don’t get me wrong, I thought Martha got a raw deal. It was an absolute witch hunt and she was being persecuted because she was an easy target while others were getting off easy, but come on now Newsweek! Stick to reporting the facts and traditional photojournalism instead of reporting PR. The question is: While the precedent has been set already, should we accept news organizations taking artistic liberties with news stories and visual representations of those stories? Through digital imagery we can alter the way people understand or perceive issues rather than allowing the data or facts to represent themselves which is something photojournalists are traditionally very careful with. This concept of capturing the truth on film and letting the viewer interpret the scene goes back to Mathew Brady and his corps of photographers who in the Civil War captured images of the horror of war. These images delivered the news in visual form to the rest of the world in a manner never before seen and revolutionized reporting forever. Brady’s goal was to capture the image as it was, and not to prop people up for posed photographs. This ethic has survived in photojournalism to a large extent. However, in this case, Newsweek is reporting on a news event and portraying that image as being part of the news story. I understand that it is only a cover, but this trend is a disturbing one. What exactly is the truth? We rely upon news agencies to report to us the truth and images are part of that truth.

Update 03_19_05: Newsweek has established a policy of identifying the origin of the cover image on the cover itself. Quote: “NEWSWEEK apologizes for the way the Martha Stewart cover was produced and the fact that many readers could not tell it was a photo illustration. We have instituted a new policy of identifying the origin of all cover images on the cover itself.”

Photoshop Sidebar:
Digital imagery technology progressed and by the late 1980’s personal computer technology was evolving to a point where digital image manipulation was becoming available to the average citizen. In 1984 with the advent of the graphic user interface in the Macintosh, everyone now had an easy way to interface with their computer and work with images that was less abstract than the traditional command line interface. While there were some programs used for basic image manipulation available for personal computers throughout the mid to late 1980’s, it was not until 1990 that we really had a useful tool for manipulation of digital image data. In that year, Adobe shipped version 1.0 of a program that would create a revolution in image manipulation and would become perhaps the second most significant killer app in the history of personal computing. I am referring of course to Photoshop. Photoshop will most likely go down in the history of computing as one of the most important pieces of software ever written due to its impact on a variety of fields other than the one Adobe appears to somewhat myopically focus their marketing efforts. Photoshop, like the first killer app, Viscalc was originally created on Apple computers almost two decades apart. While Visicalc used the ability of the Apple ][ computer to make straightforward calculations and render them in a virtual spreadsheet format, Photoshop, one of the most complicated and sophisticated pieces of code available on personal computers depended upon a whole series of innovations in computer graphics, many of them originating in the
t=”NewWindow”>Department of computer sc
ience at the University of Utah where the co-founder of Adobe, John Warnock obtained his Ph.D.

Photoshop’s history of development actually goes back to 1987 when the original creator of the program, Thomas Knoll wrote a series of graphics subroutines for his Ph.D. thesis work on a Mac Plus. These subroutines would eventually become Photoshop, but not directly. It just so happened that Thomas?s brother John was working at Industrial Light and Magic and recognized these subroutines for the value they held in computer imagery and convinced Thomas to bundle them into a cohesive whole to create an application called Display, which was further refined and renamed in 1988 as ImagePro. Adobe realized that computers were beginning to use color and digital imagery was becoming a possibility on personal computers despite the lack of most computers ability to handle the processing requirements of image processing at the time. Additionally, scanners for personal computers, while expensive were becoming available and Adobe saw the writing on the wall and licensed the application from Thomas and his brother in 1989.

When Adobe shipped the first version of Photoshop, an entire industry grew up around it with everything from hardware acceleration to software plug-ins to enhance Photoshop’s performance. Photoshop allowed for graphic designers to use scanners to bring images into the application and edit them, enhance them and provide for limited mark-up of the images. Now, we are in the midst of a digital imaging revolution where digital cameras have overtaken film cameras and even cell phones commonly contain digital cameras. What did this mean for image manipulation? Certainly the bar was lowered. Prior to digital imagery, photographic manipulation required a fair amount of skill to and academic knowledge of film, photographic paper, chemistry and optics to manipulate images, not to mention a fair amount of space and equipment. Now digital darkrooms are possible in very small packages and contain enough computational power to render complex multi layered photographs in very little time which brings us to a point where digital image manipulation has become an every day reality for applications from touching up skin blemishes for fashion photography and creating more attractive advertisements for products, to photojournalists cropping and editing their photographs before sending them almost instantly to their home offices.

In most news paradigms, all of these media are colliding with one another. Advertisements, fact, opinion and conjecture are all lumped in together so that reporting can be paid for and delivered in a visually slick package that is attractive and thanks to Photoshop and many other tools, is cost effective. The principal job of the reporter and the news agency however is to report the news and deliver what is transpiring. That includes photographic representations of the news. When this ethic fails and truth takes a back seat to agenda, we have propaganda. For examples of propaganda, witness many of the former Communist, Soviet Unions photographic manipulations as individuals came into and fell out of political favor that have been covered in Dino Brugioni’s book Photo Fakery. Additionally, the concept of altering perception of an image by placing somebody else’s head on top of a different body has a long history going back to Soviet Russia and likely before and is one of the easiest ways to alter an image. For example this image below was sent to me by a friend in a good natured effort to convince me to join the Marines. His choice of images to composite was good with respect to lighting and direction of lighting, but edge blurring gives it away just as in the Martha image on Newsweek if you look carefully at her hair around the shirt collar.

The intro image was composited by an an unknown person and was falsely purported back in 2002 to be National Geographic’s Photo of the year. In actuality, the image of the helicopter and swimmer was taken by Lance Cheung of the U.S. Air Force. The image of the shark was taken by Charles Maxwell.

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