by John Henshall
"The camera doesn't lie" is a phrase we seldom hear these days. Once we used it regularly to reassure ourselves and others that photography was above reproach when it came to the reliable reporting of the events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It became part of our photo-phokelore.
With the advent of photo-manipulation software, such as Adobe Photoshop, all that changed. Tabloids such as 'The Sport' showed a London Transport bus found on the moon and women with breasts so large that they could only defy gravity with the use of silicon chips, rather than silicone implants. In fact 'The Sport' is one of the best sources of examples of digital photo-manipulation - at least that's my excuse for buying it. But even publications which we feel are beyond reproach have been caught out: witness 'National Geographic' magazine's judicious re-alignment of the pyramids to fit a cover layout more conveniently.
The camera has always been a liar, especially in the hands of a capable photographer. The choice of a wideangle lens exaggerates perspective and consequently affects perception of the relative sizes of objects in the frame. A long focal length lens makes objects appear closer together than they are. A wide aperture reduces depth of field to the point where attention can be directed to the in-focus part of the image. A low camera angle accentuates the stature of subjects, allowing them to dominate us; a high camera angle enables us to dominate the subject. The precise moment of exposure and shutter speed record just a fraction of a second of action, submitting it as a representation of an event which may have taken much longer. Dodging and burning redirects emphasis. Cropping - in the viewfinder, on the enlarger table, or for the pages of a publication - edits what we see and further influences our awareness of truth. It isn't just what we include in a picture but what we choose to leave out. These are just some of the tools which enable us to tell the story as we wish it to be seen. Ultimately the viewer has to put his trust in the interpretive hands of the photographer. That is what can - but far from always does - make a photograph a work of art.
A sub-committee of the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords has recently been looking carefully at photography. With peers such as The Rt Hon The Lord Sir Christopher Langdon Brain ARPS (a member of the British Copyright Council and the British Photographic Liaison Committee since 1989, who sits on the council of the Royal Photographic Society and worked for a time for Ilford as plain Chris Brain) and The Rt Hon The Lord Baron Denis Winston Healey CH MBE PC of Riddlesden in the County of West Yorkshire (better known to everyone as Denis Healey, Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer 1974&endash;1979 and a keen, accomplished photographer, down to earth and hugely likeable - not highbrow but certainly eyebrow) their Lordships could hardly have been unaware of the distortions of truth by the camera. Instead, they have been examining the thorny questions which surround the use of digital imaging as evidence.
Our guardians of justice are worried about manipulated photographs being presented as true photographic evidence. The man sitting between two naked ladies claims he has been 'framed', that he was never there. It must, he says, be a composite - made using the latest digital technology with the intent of discrediting him. Or is it? We can look for clues. Does the lighting of the man match that of the girls on either side of him? Are the nose shadows all cast in the same direction? Is there an unnatural mixture of soft- and hard-light in the same picture? Are there signs of some of the subjects having been cut out and superimposed? Does the colour and tonality of all the subjects match? Can we find originals from which the composite has been made up? This is how we begin to judge whether a suspect photograph is real or not. We look for anomalies.
Have you seen James Cameron's latest movie, 'Titanic'? Surely that is the real Titanic, isn't it? It ought to be - it cost more - but, no, it's 'just' an expensive mock-up. But, because the lighting, camera angles and digital compositing are so perfect, we cannot detect the fake, no matter how hard we try. That's the essence of today's good movie making: we believe it, therefore it is real. It's also the essence of a good fake photograph. Only the inevitable documentary - 'How we made 'Titanic' the Movie' - can prove otherwise.
From a government's point of view, today's wide availability of digital imaging software empowers the proletariat, including the criminal classes, to deceive us. Even a modestly experienced digital imager could pull the wool over our eyes with relative ease and quickly acquired skills. Worse still, as part of a general loss of faith in the integrity of images, aspersions may be cast on genuine photographic evidence which our law enforcement officers have worked assiduously to obtain.
Manipulating photographs is nothing new, however. From the earliest days of photography we have relied on the confidential work of expert retouchers to bring a degree of apparent perfection to our work, covering blemishes and rectifying mistakes. It has never been more than a short squirt of the airbrush and a few snips of the scissors from this to intentionally making a photograph lie, although highly developed craft skills are needed to make the result totally believable.
For much of the twentieth century the Soviet government had total power, especially under the leadership of Stalin, and could select the retouching artists with the very best skills.
David King was the art editor of the 'Sunday Times' magazine from 1965 to 1975 and is a keen collector of Soviet images. He has assembled many of these images into a book, 'The Commissar Vanishes', which documents the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin's Russia.
In page after page of fascinating side-by-side 'before' and 'after' examples, David King shows how Stalin used photographic retouching as one of his less painful ways of eliminating those who had fallen from favour. A few deft strokes of the airbrush were all that was needed to re-write history.
Left: A meeting of the St. Petersburg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class in February 1897.
Right: The man standing on the left in the original, Alexander Malchenko, has been removed from this version published in 1939. He had been executed on 18 November 1930 but was 'rehabilitated' in 1958, at which point his presence was allowed to reappear.
Some of the retouching is rather crude by today's standards. David King suggests that the Stalinists may have wanted their readers "to see that elimination had taken place, as a fearful and ominous warning." "Or could the slightest trace of an almost vanished commissar, deliberately left behind by the retoucher, become a ghostly reminder that the repressed might yet return?"
It would have been a brave retoucher who intentionally let his feelings show through in this way, risking his own elimination. Maybe it was because the crude reprographic processes used at the time introduced another layer of cover-up? Or was it simply that people of a less visually sophisticated era were more inclined to accept the photographic 'evidence' presented to them, never even suspecting the existence of techniques for deception? Maybe they believed that the camera doesn't lie?
David King's book is an outstanding work of photo-archeology, essential to any digital imaging library to show that there is nothing new about manipulating photographs.
Crowd control 1 Lenin (above the pyramid shape) making a speech in Dvortsovaya Square, Petrograd, 19 July 1920.
Crowd control 2 When published in the 17 February1924 issue of Krasnaya Niva (Red Square) magazine, a much more dramatic crowd had been added...
Crowd control 3 ...from this picture taken on another occasion.
No wonder our leaders are concerned about photographic integrity now that anyone - not just governments with resources to commission the finest retouchers - can manufacture 'the truth' so easily. Fortunately, we can rest secure in the knowledge that no other government has ever, or will ever, abuse photography to manipulate the truth as did Stalin.
Recently, the authenticity of NASA's shots of astronauts descending the steps of the lunar lander to the surface of the moon has been questioned, citing unnatural fill-in lighting impossible to achieve on the moon. Are we too trusting? Maybe it's time be more suspicious of photographs of yesterday, as well as those of today and tomorrow?
'The Commissar Vanishes' by David King, 192 pages, ISBN 0 86241 724 4 is published in the UK by Canongate Books, 14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE at £25 (hard back), and in the USA by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt & Company Inc. We have negotiated a special price of £20 including postage and packing for readers of 'The Photographer'. Just telephone 0131 557 5111 with your credit card details.