Doctored Photos – The Art of the Altered Image

5 minute read

Photographic images can be altered and manipulated in various ways to change their meaning. Some of the most obvious and oft-cited historical examples are those in which discredited Party officials were clumsily erased from group pictures: Trotsky is erased, leaving Lenin to address the troops; Goebbels is erased, leaving Hitler standing next to a ghostly absence; etc. These historical instances of altered photographs seem quaint in the age of Photoshop, when any image can easily be changed, leaving no visible trace of the alteration. But the old motivations are still there, as when the Situation Room image released by the White House showing President Obama and his national security team intently watching the images from the raid on Osama bin Laden was altered when published by two Orthodox Jewish publications in Brooklyn to remove the only two women in the image, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason. This politically loaded erasure unleashed a flurry of photoshopped versions of the Situation Room image (all women, Osama replacing Hillary, officials as uniformed super heroes, etc.) circulating across the Internet. In fact, the “original” image released by the White House had already been digitally altered, to obscure the image lying on the desk in front of Hillary Clinton, and was accompanied, when it appeared on Flickr, by this disclaimer: “Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured.”

A different sort of alteration is aesthetically, rather than politically, motivated, when an image is cleaned up or improved, just to make a better image. The fence post is removed from above Mary Ann Vecchio’s head in the iconic image of the Kent State shootings in 1970, a fourth missile is inserted into an image of the Iranian Missile Test in 2008, or two images are combined to make a better composition in an image from Iraq in 2003, leading to the firing of Los Angeles Times staff photographer Brian Walski.

Various technical fixes have been proposed to control these kinds of alterations and make it clear when an image has been changed, but none of these measures will solve the larger problem. We manipulate images, in part, to obscure how much they are manipulating us.

The truth is that every photograph or digital image is manipulated, aesthetically and politically, when it is made and when it is distributed, and this is key to how they can be used to subtly influence us. The manipulation is possible because we believe technical images in a way that we do not believe traditional (handmade) images. We believe that technical images have a more direct relation to the real, so our default setting in relation to them is credulity. Seeing is believing. This makes it possible for us to be manipulated and influenced by technical images in a particular way.

Our belief in photographic images is a projection, so it can be influenced in all kinds of ways, from the making of the image within long-established image rhetorics to the way the image is presented and contextualized by accompanying texts. At a time when any photographic image, old or new, can be digitized and altered at will, we should not believe any image that we see in print or online or anywhere else. But we still do, because it is still in our interest to do so. Why? Because we need to believe in this visual connection to the real in order to make sense of what is happening in the world. Belief, or at least the temporary suspension of disbelief, is necessary in order for us to effectively apprehend the world at a distance, through images.

In the Information Age, technical images have become just another kind of information, or as James Gleick has it in the title of his current book, “The Information.” Gleick points out that the key to making the Information Age possible was taking meaning out of the equation. When you render meaning irrelevant, information becomes endlessly transmissible, as bits and bytes. It also becomes fungible, like money. It can be moved around rapidly and used for any purpose, good or bad, and becomes very difficult to trace. Having been disconnected from information, significance and meaning must be assigned independently.

Technical images have now become a form of information, to be consumed like all other bits and bytes. As we consume them, we should perhaps take a moment to reflect, not just on how we manipulate and change them, but also on how we are manipulated and changed by them.

—David Levi Strauss

David Levi Strauss is the author of From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition with a prolegomenon by Hakim Bey, 2010). He is chair of the graduate program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Strauss previously wrote for LightBox about the withholding of images.

Civil War Generals, c. 1865 Generally regarded as the world's first commercially successful photojournalist, Mathew Brady was also one of the medium's most accomplished manipulators. In this group portrait of William Tecumseh Sherman and his top officers, he added one figure. For the record, the men are, standing, from left: Oliver Otis Howard, William Babcock Hazen, Jefferson Columbus Davis and Joseph Anthony Mower; seated, from left: John Alexander Logan, Sherman, Henry Warner Slocum and Francis P. Blair.Mathew Brady—Library of Congress
The Original Image By comparing the previous doctored image, it becomes clear that Brady added Blair (visibly absent in this original). One of Sherman's corps commanders in the critical final offensive in Georgia, Blair led the XVII Corps, which protected the rear of Sherman's army during the Atlanta campaign. Like the other men in the photo, he played an important role in the March to the Sea, helping deliver one of the final blows to the Confederate cause.Mathew Brady—Library of Congress
Lenin Addresses the Troops, 1920 One of the most widely reproduced scenes of the Russian Revolution, this photograph was taken by G.P. Goldshtein and was published in myriad forms during the Soviet era. The moment captures Lenin exhorting soldiers from the Red Army as they prepare to depart for the Polish front, where they would fight the troops of Josef Pilsudski.G.P. Goldshtein
The Original Scene Taken within seconds of the preceding photo, this frame reveals that Lenin was joined that day by fellow Central Committee members Leon Trotsky, who stands in hat and mustache on the stairs to the right of the podium, and Lev Kamenev, who stands behind him. Perceived by Stalin as rivals to his power, both men were ultimately purged and their contributions to the revolution largely eliminated from the historical record. Though the photograph was widely published with the two men present during the 1920s, it was reproduced with stairs in their place for most of the Soviet era, even during the Gorbachev period.Mansell / Time Life Pictures / Getty
Hitler Meets with Leni Riefenstahl, 1937 The Nazi filmmaker, center, is visited by the Führer in Berlin. They are joined by, at far left, her brother Heinz, and at far right, his wife Ilse. Note the ghostly outline next to Ilse in the middle right of the frame. Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo
The Original Image The missing figure turns out to be none other than Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich's top propagandist and one of the architects of the Holocaust. It remains a mystery why Hitler had his loyal colleague erased from this photo; shortly after it was taken, history notes, Goebbels' standing with the Führer suffered a critical blow as Hitler became aware of his lieutenant's affair with an actress.Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo
Kent State, 1970 Fourteen-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of Jeffrey Miller, a student at the university who was killed by National Guardsmen during a protest against the war in Vietnam. This Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph, taken by photojournalism student John Filo, became an icon of the tumultuous period.John Filo—AP
The Original Image For all its drama, the Kent State photo violated one of the cardinal rules of photographic composition: the fence post in the field behind Vecchio terminates at the top of her head, almost as if a giant nail has fallen into her skull. When the image was published in Life magazine that week, the editors opted to remove it.John Filo—AP
The Beatles' Abbey Road Poster Though it is true that this rectangular poster celebrating the Beatles' second-to-last release is cropped differently than the original square LP cover, it features one additional, more significant alteration of the original (and it's not Paul McCartney's lack of footwear).Apple
The Original Artwork Some American publishers decided to remove the cigarette from Paul's right hand without getting permission from him or Apple Records, which owns the right to the image. Said an Apple spokesman: "It seems these poster companies got a little carried away."Apple
TV Guide's Oprah Winfrey Cover, 1989 This cover story about the daytime talk-show host contains a pair of extreme manipulations. The first, of course, is the pile of money she sits on.
The Original Image Remarkably, Oprah's head has been spliced onto the body of glam actress Ann-Margaret. The manipulation was immediately detected by Ann-Margaret's fashion designer Bob Mackie, who created the gown. Neal Peters Collection
Iranian Missile Test, 2008 Many major newspapers ran this image, released by Sepah News, a media outlet associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard, that shows the test firing of a Shahab-3 missile. The high-speed ballistic missile was said to be capable of traveling 2,000 km, thereby putting Iran within striking range of Israel. Sepah News—Corbis
The Original Image In order to conceal that the second missile from the right had not fired, somewhere in the editorial process it was decided that it would be better to paste a successful launch in its place. Sepah News—Corbis
Kim Jong Il and North Korean Troops, c. 2009 Western observers of the PRK have long suspected that the photographs released by KCNA, North Korea's official news agency, are routinely manipulated to portray leader Kim Jong Il in the best possible light. This group photo, released in the wake of rumors that Kim had suffered a stroke, was closely scrutinized for inconsistencies. It purports to show him in the company of an honored regiment.KCNA—AFP/Getty
Close-Up of the Original Analysts zeroed in on this area of the photograph, where portions of the reviewing stand can be seen in, while the quality of the wood or metal also seems to differ, suggesting that Kim was inserted into the photo after the fact.KCNA—AFP/Getty
Benjamin Netanyahu and His Cabinet, 2009 The Israeli newspaper Yated Neeman published this version of a group photo of Netanyahu, the country's newly elected Prime Minister, front left, with President Shimon Peres, front right, and members of Netanyahu's new government. AP
The Original Image An unaltered version of the photo reveals that the newspaper has replaced the two female Cabinet members, Limor Livnat and Sofa Landver, with men's faces. The faces belong to ministers Ariel Atias and Moshe Kachlon, who in the original photograph can be seen toward the periphery of the group (standing, second from left and second from right). In Yated Neeman's version of the image, they have been cropped out. Much of the newspaper's readership consists of ultra-Orthodox readers who do not think it proper for women to serve in the government.MENAHEM KAHANA—AFP/Getty
The White House Situation Room, May 1, 2011 This photograph, from inside the President’s “war room,” shows the Commander in Chief and key members of his national security team watch live intelligence as US forces assault a Osama bin Laden’s compound within Pakistan. On the center of the table, in front of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sits a classified document that was obscured by the White House before it was released to the press. Pete Souza—White House

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