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Photo editing goes back a surprisingly long way

Ye Olde Photoshoppe

Today image modification simply requires a tap of a smartphone app. But, says Tom Standage, the manipulation of photographs goes back a surprisingly long way

Today image modification simply requires a tap of a smartphone app. But, says Tom Standage, the manipulation of photographs goes back a surprisingly long way

Tom Standage | December 12th 2017

In the early 1990s, after leaving university, I was employed as a Photoshop operator for a few months. It was varied, challenging work, mocking up corporate logos that resembled glowing signs on buildings and, occasionally, squeezing images for clothing catalogues to make the models look exactly 4% thinner (I was merely following orders). Desktop computers were finally powerful enough to handle full-colour, high-resolution photos. The ability to modify images, invisibly and arbitrarily, felt revolutionary.

Today, of course, that power is available to anyone with a smartphone. Snapchat, Instagram and other apps make it easy to modify, augment and distort photographs. Celebrities get called out for ham-fisted photo-tweaking, though it mostly goes unnoticed. Chinese “meitu” apps let selfie-snappers alter their bone structure, skin tone and complexion. Syria’s government regularly fakes pictures; Iran was caught after it edited shots of a missile launch to make it look more impressive. Image manipulation is rife, and video is the next frontier: already, experimental systems can take video of someone talking, and adjust their lip movements to make them appear to say anything. Studies show that people are generally bad at spotting manipulated images. Photography’s relationship with the truth seems to have been damaged beyond repair.

Yet the modification of photographs is not new. It is, in fact, as old as photography itself. Early photographic emulsions were particularly sensitive to blue and violet light, which meant the sky came out much too dark in landscape photographs. As a result, it was common practice in the 1850s for landscape photographers to make two separate exposures, for land and sky, and then combine them into a single image in the darkroom.

Manipulating images of people was also commonplace. For decades, starting in the 1860s, one well-known visual joke – today we would call it a meme – was the “fake decapitation” image, in which someone was shown, through the magic of darkroom wizardry, holding his own disembodied head. On other occasions portraitists would fuse a sitter’s head with someone else’s body, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln. The most famous portrait of him is in fact a composite image, with the body taken from a daguerreotype of the rather more majestic John C. Calhoun, a former vice-president. When Lincoln’s head was added on, it was reversed or “flopped”, causing the mole on his right cheek to appear on his left cheek instead – a rookie error.

By the early 20th century, retouching of glass photographic negatives, with the judicious use of pencils, brushes and scalpels, had become an accepted part of portrait photography. Photographers were expected to ensure that people looked their best. “The most frequent use of the knife by the professional photographer is to reduce the waist line on pictures of some of their female sitters whose embonpoint may be too apparent,” observed Camera magazine in 1904. Image manipulation was also used for propaganda, starting with the deceptive prints of the execution of communards after the siege of Paris in 1871, and elevated into a political art form by the expert air-brushers of the Stalinist era.

Faking photos has certainly become easier than ever in the digital era. But despite the march of technology, computerised manipulation has not radically changed photography’s relationship with truth. The camera never lies? It would be more accurate to say that it has never genuinely told the truth.

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