Sometimes seeing is not believing
- By Dan Verton
- Dec 19, 1999
Since the early 19th century, people have come to accept what they see in photographs as reality. The adage that "the camera never lies" has come to be accepted as historical fact, buttressed by the faith taken daily by all who read a newspaper or magazine that what is depicted in photos actually happened.
But with his latest book, Photo Fakery: The History and Techniques of Photographic Deception and Manipulation, Dino Brugioni has turned the world of photojournalism upside down. The former co-founder of the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center and one of the central figures in the intelligence effort to uncover Soviet missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Brugioni offers a comprehensive look at how advances in information technology are revolutionizing the age-old craft of forging and altering pictures.
The art of producing fake photography predates the computer by almost a century, and some of America's well-known and most beloved figures have not gone unscathed, according to Brugioni.
For example, when photographer Matthew Brady first photographed President John Calhoun, he had no idea that an eager entrepreneur would later take a reversed image of Abraham Lincoln's head and graft it onto Calhoun's body for a new engraving. Not only was Lincoln's head also substituted on the bodies of Alexander Hamilton and Martin Van Buren, but the famous photo of "The Martyr Lincoln," which depicts Lincoln in his casket, has since been proven to be fraudulent, Brugioni writes.
Other well-known doctored photographs include the recently de-bunked 1934 depiction of the Loch Ness monster that appeared in a London newspaper; a studio portrait of American literary giant Walt Whitman that was used as the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass; and an 1865 portrait of Union Army Gen. William Sherman and his staff. More recent examples of tampering illustrated by Brugioni include the controversial darkening of O.J. Simpson's face on the cover of Time magazine and the less sinister yet commonplace touchups done to the faces, teeth and bust lines of today's supermodels.
According to Brugioni, "the invention of the Eastman portable camera in 1888, followed by the box camera, opened photography to people in all walks of life." Now, a little more than 100 years later, the same can be said of the computer. Brugioni's book appears at a time when the technology is readily available for almost anybody with a modicum of computer skills to re-touch, change or forge photos.
Brugioni does a superb job of explaining the techniques employed by today's generation of hi-tech photo forgers, as well as the various methods used to spot a fake. From why it is important to examine the size, shape, tone, texture and shadows of an image to understanding the use of inaccurate captions, Brugioni's Photo Fakery is a tour de force for imagery intelligence novices throughout the Defense Department and intelligence community. But you'll have to make an effort to get beyond the preponderance of black-and-white examples.
However, in his approach to looking at the techniques and types of photo fakery, Brugioni makes some broad statements about the integrity of those who serve the public's insatiable desire for information. Although "news agencies are frequently offered fabricated or staged photos and stories to perpetrate misinformation, each editor or art director determines how the computer will be used and each, it appears, seems to be setting his or her own standards," Brugioni writes. Such statements raise serious questions about the nature of a free press, and a more balanced treatment of the issue would have included interviews with editors and art directors from the media.
Likewise, Brugioni uses the mind-boggling pace of technology to paint a bleak picture of the future. "We can see how photo fakery has made most of us doubters rather than believers," Brugioni writes. "With the new and expanding technology, faith in photography as the purveyor of truth has been weakened and, in the future, it will be further weakened rather than strengthened."
Brugioni suggests that in this age of the "electronic darkroom," ethics must become "an important part of a course in digital imaging taught at DOD's Joint Defense Photography School in Pensacola, Fla." The concern, according to Brugioni, is that the ability to alter photos through electronic manipulation raises moral, legal and ethical issues for members of the intelligence community who are responsible for providing imagery intelligence to high-level decision-makers in government, including the president.
Readers are left hanging, however, wondering what, if anything, can be done to avoid a future where nothing can be believed. Brugioni puts forth a strong argument in favor of distrusting the pictures shown
in newspapers, in magazines, on television and on the Internet without offering any solutions, technological or otherwise, that the government can use to bolster public trust. The Air Force Research Laboratory's pending patent for digital watermark technology is one example. The watermark, much like those used by the Treasury Department in its newly designed $100, $50 and $20 bills, would indicate the image had not been altered.
Whatever the future holds, Brugioni's Photo Fakery is the perfect guide for educating government imagery professionals and others on how we got to where we are today. But his treatment of the inherent dangers of IT cries out for some hope that maybe the technology that can be used to combat photo fakery is progressing at the same pace as that which puts truth and democracy at risk.