E L E C T R O S P H E R E    Issue 1.02 - June 1995

Truth, Justice and the new Photo(shop) Realism

By Jaques Leslie

When President Clinton went sailing off Martha's Vineyard with singer James Taylor last August, Associated Press photographer Stephan Savoia took pictures of the seafaring celebrities from a boat 130 yards away. Nothing unusual about that, except that when Savoia finished shooting he didn't develop his film - he had no film to develop. Instead, he removed a pocket-sized hard drive from the side of his camera, slipped it into a docking station attached to a PowerBook, and reviewed all 30 of his shots on the laptop's screen. After selecting his favourite image, he fine-tuned its colours, wrote a caption, and then, using a cellular phone, transmitted both image and caption to a central computer at AP's New York headquarters. Savoia was slowed by bouts of nausea as he worked in the cabin of the pitching boat, but the process took him only 15 minutes. The photograph was in newsrooms around the country long before Clinton reached shore.

The crucial piece of gear was, of course, a digital camera, the crowning tool in the ongoing electronic transformation of news photography. Savoia's camera, the AP NewsCamera 2000, came on the market a year ago, but even before then, news photographers were using darkrooms for nothing more than developing film; instead of making prints from negatives, they scanned negatives into computers and edited them using imaging programs such as Photoshop. Though the digital camera is still a specialty tool, its use limited by its cost, conspicuousness and the need for brightly lit subjects, it offers news photographers the option of capturing images without film.

The advent of digital technology has already scrambled job descriptions within news photography departments - it enables photo editors to take on production chores once performed by technicians, and loosens photographers' control over the images they shoot. The elimination of prints has saved news organisations millions of pounds in paper and chemicals, and it has spared the environment many toxins. Electronic technology has also fostered an effusion of colour photographs in news publications. But, crucially, the malleability of digitised images has cast doubt on the credibility of those photographs.

Many photojournalists say the turning point in news photography's electronic conversion was the Associated Press's move in 1991 to distribute images to its 1,000 newspaper and magazine photo clients in digital form. To facilitate the change, AP provided computer-based receivers called "electronic picture desks" to the clients at nominal cost. The transmission of colour photographs, which formerly took 30 minutes, dropped to 20 seconds; transmitting black-and-white images went from 8 minutes to 8 seconds. As a result, AP tripled the number of images it sent to subscribers and delivered all of them in high-resolution colour. Other wire services soon joined AP in providing digital delivery of news photographs; 75 agencies including Reuters, Agence France Presse, and Knight-Ridder/Tribune went a step further, offering individual images for sale online via modems, local access numbers, and a service called PressLink.

One result was that subscribers abruptly faced an abundance of bewildering and potentially expensive choices. Photo editors could now browse, size and colour-balance images stored inside electronic picture desks, but if they wished to raise the quality of their own staff's photographs to the new digital standard, they needed to buy scanners; thus, AP sells scanners for negatives. In addition, picture desks enhanced the utility of portable picture transmitters, which enable photographers in the field to scan negatives, edit the digitised images, and transmit them to home offices over telephone lines; such packages that attach to PowerBooks sell for about £3,000. And unless publications invest in digital output devices, which maintain images' digital characteristics through the production process, they lose part of the image quality. Digital output units range from £20,000 up to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

If these choices sound forbidding, consider the opportunities they have opened up. For example, the Los Angeles Times now collects 750 to 1,000 wire service pictures daily and the number of colour photographs in the paper has quintupled. The switch to digital technology also means that images shot by Times photographers can easily be published in electronic forms such as CD-ROMs or the Times's online service. The Times has already produced a CD-ROM on the April 1992 Los Angeles riots and a videotape on the October 1993 Southern California fires.

Freed from the darkroom, photographers find that they have more time to spend covering stories; the greatly reduced transmission and processing times mean that they can work on stories hours closer to their deadlines. If they are using digital cameras - still rarities at all but the largest news organisations - the time benefit can be even greater. When he was covering the 1993 floods in the Midwest, Savoia spent five weeks driving through the region searching for inundated areas. When he found one, he'd shoot until noon or 1 o'clock; then he'd drive to a town with functioning phone lines, develop and scan his film, then edit and transmit the best images in time to meet Eastern newspapers' mid-afternoon deadlines. However, if he'd been equipped with a digital camera, he says, "I could have stayed in a boat shooting until 3 o'clock, then gone back to my car, pulled out the computer, plugged it into the cigarette lighter, put the cell phone on the roof and bingo, by 3.15 I could have had a picture or two in New York."

The irony is that while digital technology frees photographers from the darkroom, enabling them to spend longer hours in the field, it has jeopardised the credibility of the images they now have more time to shoot. Most photojournalists believe the only alterations that ought to be performed on their images are the traditional techniques of darkroom printing: enlarging, cropping, burning, and dodging. However, Photoshop and other imaging programs enable users to make an infinite array of changes seamlessly and nearly effortlessly. In some cases, the alterations are obvious; it's when the manipulations are imperceptible that controversy arises. John Long, who frequently lectures on photographic ethics, says such alterations are tantamount to lies. "If we start lying to the public," he says, "we destroy our credibility. We destroy our newspapers. We destroy everything we stand for."

Every photojournalist can rattle off a list of images that became notorious after revelations that they had been digitally manipulated. As far back as February 1982, National Geographic moved two Egyptian pyramids closer together to fit them both on the magazine's cover. Six years ago, Newsweek carried an image that appeared to show Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise standing side by side, even though they had been shot separately. Texas Monthly was rebuked for two cover images of Governor Ann Richards: in one, Richards was dancing with her 1990 election opponent, while in the other, she was riding a Harley-Davidson; in both instances, her head was placed over models' bodies. (After the motorcycle cover appeared, Richards said that since the model had such a nice body, she could hardly complain.) And, in what became the most controversial image of all, Time carried a digitally darkened version of an O J Simpson mugshot on its cover.

While most large newspapers oppose deceptively manipulating images, their stance is undermined by the more freewheeling practices of magazines. Some magazines even make a distinction between covers, which they describe as sales tools, and photos inside. For example, Arthur Hochstein, Time's art director, candidly states that the magazine has run "scores" of digitally altered cover photos, while maintaining that photographs inside the magazine are manipulated "much less frequently".

Many photojournalists maintain that the ethical battle has exposed a rift between photo editors, who consider themselves journalists, and art directors, who frequently don't; it's art directors, smitten by their enhanced ability to produce montages and "photo- illustrations", who are far more likely to embrace digital manipulation. "It's a more exciting time for art directors," Hochstein says, "but you can see who's winning the power struggle. The photographers, who used to be the keepers of the image, are feeling a little nervous, and justifiably so, because they see the power of the image shifting away from them."

But the prominence of digital technology has at least one perverse effect: while it has focused attention on the ethics of manipulation, thereby creating the perception that alteration of news photographs is at an all-time high, the opposite is probably true. Joe Elbert, The Washington Post's assistant managing editor for photography, says that in the not-so-distant, pre-computer past, retouchers routinely removed objects from some photographs and occasionally added them to others. "It's amazing," he says. "When you pull pictures from the morgue, you find instances where people's faces have been painted out with a brush." Baron Sekiya, chief photographer for West Hawaii Today, speaks for many contemporary photojournalists when he says, "Now it is so easy to manipulate a photograph and make it look believable that we tend to go to the other extreme."

Computer technology has so confused the public that in at least a couple of instances, publications have been wrongly accused of digital manipulation. In 1992, Texas Monthly, already censured for its deceptive Ann Richards covers, ran an unaltered cover photograph showing a controversial Texas government official sitting on top of an oil derrick; since the photograph looked implausible, the immediate assumption was that it was falsified. D J Stout, Texas Monthly's art director, says, "I realised at that point that the altered photographs were really hurting the integrity of the magazine's cover, to the point that when we had a great photograph, nobody believed it." Since then, the magazine has instituted a policy of resisting digital alteration unless the changes are overwhelmingly obvious to the viewer.

Most photojournalists are reluctant conservatives in this ethical tussle, inveighing against the temptations of computer applications that have already been embraced in movies and many kinds of commercial photography. Even if they succeed in cordoning off the news photography domain - something that is not assured - they risk being engulfed by altered images from other realms. It's a poignant moment. A century and a half ago, photographs relieved paintings of the burden of recording reality; now, in turn, computers have weakened photography's claim on depicting the "real" world. For all computers' extraordinary precision, their impact has been to obscure the boundaries of fact and fiction. In other words, to blur.

Jacques Leslie's (jacques@well.com) The Mark: A War Correspondent's Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia, comes out this month.