A picture’s worth a thousand words

The year was 1987. The month was September. I was in Grinnell Iowa, typing away on the Commodore 64 I had brought with me from home. I had managed to convince the staff of the college newspaper, the Grinnell Scarlet and Black, to give me, a freshman, a weekly opinion column. For the second issue of the year, which arrived off the presses September 4, 1987, they printed my first column, which I had worked on all summer long. It was the column I had used to convince them I could write. It compared Oliver North to Dostoyevsky’s character Raskolnikov, from Crime and Punishment, who believed the law didn’t apply to him. An easy comparison. But it was a weekly newspaper, and I didn’t have any other columns already written. So I searched the headlines for news stories, and wrote about the ones that jarred me.

This blog entry is about the second column. It appeared the following week. September 11, 1987. Don’t worry, there isn’t anything in the column about New York, the Middle East, or anything truly freaky. I wrote about digital manipulation of photography. How tabloids had long been able to doctor photographs, but how the process was getting easier. And I wondered aloud how much easier it might get in the future. Remember, I typed this column on my Commodore 64, and printed it out on my dot matrix printer. The internet at that time was a collection of nodes on the Bitnet and Arpanet networks. I became hooked later that year on something called Relay, the precursor to what is known today as IRC. (But that is a completely different story.) The most popular image software at the time was probably PrintShop. Which was used primarily to print banners.

Here is the column. [Note: … means I have skipped a paragraph or two. The below begins where I began, and ends where I ended. But the 34 year-old looking back at the 18-year-old’s work decides you don’t have to see every paragraph. What I have included is embarrassing enough.]

Imagine yourself in Egypt marveling at the great pyramids towering above you. You wonder how to describe the scene to your friends and still do it justice, when you realize it is impossible. So you take a picture. A picture never lies and therefore is the most accurate means of communication that exists. Hence the phrase: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Recently, however, it has been proven that a picture, with the aid of a super-duper relatively inexpensive computer, can lie. National Geographic a few months ago found itself in a crisis situation. Their photographers had taken a picture of two of the above pyramids with the intention of placing them on their front cover. When they returned to their office in the US they realized the pyramids were too far apart for both to fit on the cover, and if they reduced the picture the pyramids would look too small. What did the editors do? They put the photograph into a computer and moved the pyramids closer together. When they were done both pyramids fit. They were closer together than in reality, but that didn’t matter. The crisis had been neatly solved.

Rolling Stone had a different problem. In one of its pictures an actor had posed with a gun in his hand. The editor of Rolling Stone, an active gun-control advocate, declared at the last minute that the picture couldn’t be printed with the gun. The photograph was placed into a computer similar to National Geographic’s and the gun was very carefully erased. There was no evidence left that it ever existed. This crisis had been neatly solved too….

If a gun can be taken away from a picture, can it be added? Can one take a picture of somebody leaving a bank, later put a gun in that person’s hand, and claim he robbed it?….

Entire pictures can be rearranged and altered at the touch of buttons, without leaving any evidence that it has been done. The process simply changes the photograph into a series of numbers, and if the programmer knows what the numbers mean, an entire new picture can be created. Presently, simple alterations are the easiest, but the future will bring more advanced models that will be able to do more advanced jobs….

Perhaps National Geographic and Rolling Stone didn’t cross the line between the ethical right and wrong, but many will. The items in the world upon which we can depend seem to be quickly diminishing. Here is an image of the entire column…

Here is an article PBS has on their website

American Photography: Digital Truth Note they begin the article with the same two examples from the 1980s. (They even identify the actor, which I didn’t do — Don Johnson.) They mention several more recent examples. PBS ends with, “we still are waiting for our first great test case of digital truth, that is, digital lying.”

The Media Awareness Network has even more examples at Photographic Truth in the Digital Era. (I’d argue a couple of the examples come awfully close to digital lying.)

The Grinnell College Scarlet and Black – Online