The age of the hyperimage is upon us. We can warp, fake, and distort the truth with a mouse click – but what is the real impact? Digit spoke to photojournalists, Photoshoppers, amateur fakers, professional retouchers, and photographers to find out the truth.

Like many technologies that ultimately end up as weapons of mass destruction, Adobe’s Photoshop began life with the purest of intentions. Created just 15 years ago by John Knoll, Photoshop was made as an artistic force for good. It was an image enhancer, for cropping photos and making shots look better. Photoshop truly was a darkroom in digital.

Yet, in today’s high-bandwidth society, where people can access a proliferation of digital image-editing tools and fire off distorted hyperimages around the world in mere moments, Photoshop is one of the weapons being used in a war of untruths and fabrication.

It wasn’t meant to be that way, of course. Writing in the New York Post, Knoll says that: “when we worked on Photoshop, mostly we saw the possibilities, the cool things – not how it would be abused”.

But abused it has been. Along with a whole army of image-editing tools, it’s being used not only by digital artists aiming to deliver great creative output, but increasingly by a rag tag rebel movement of ‘Photoshoppers’ bent on distorting, warping, and even downright lying with Photoshop. Today, anyone with rudimentary skill can cut, paste, and rework an image into something with a different message entirely. It doesn’t take much to make the unreal real.

The most obvious use of Photoshop manipulation for fun and pleasure has been the rise in spoof images delivered daily into email in-boxes around the world. It’s become a global past-time: visual jokes that draw on the credible to create the improbable. Some of the fakes are, admittedly, hilarious. The ‘bad day’ image showing a shark attacking a helicopter (see below) has made national newspapers, along with a whole raft of images such as giant domestic cats, US President Bush reading an upside-down book, a triple tornado striking a town, rock-band kittens, faked up iMac adverts, and aerial shots of cityscapes spelling out rude words.

Other images are not so amusing. A faked image of US Democrat and presidential challenger John Kerry appearing on a peace platform with Jane Fonda made the front-pages of newspapers across the US in February this year, and was used by conservatives to gain political mileage. Previously, a faked image – dubbed Tourist Guy (above) – reported to be a snap of a man at the top of one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. The date in the lower-part of the image read 09/11/01, and over his shoulder the silver body of an American Airlines plane heading in for its attack.

Selling out the truth

Of course, while faked images are nothing new, it’s their increasing widespread use that has divided the photographic and Photoshop communities. On one hand, social and political satire has a valued place in society, but if a faked image is sold as the truth, then many artists are against photos that lie.

A prime example of the latter followed the harrowing bombing of a train in Madrid in March. Several morning newspapers carried a picture of paramedics working on bloodied victims on the track. Most newspapers showed the full scene – including a severed limb in the foreground of the picture – but other newspapers used Photoshop to clone out the limb, making the picture more palatable for readers.

Less newsworthy images are routinely faked. Celebrities and magazine cover stars are digitally airbrushed, zits are removed, and blemishes smoothed. Even further, some stars have their hips reduced, legs slimmed, limbs elongated, teeth cleaned, and eyes shined. It’s all part of the entertainment bandwagon, where pictures sell magazines, and magazines can routinely spend half their budget securing a cover image. The temptation to digitally enhance images can go too far, as men’s magazine GQ found when it warped an image of Kate Winslet for a cover that left her looking as if she was perched on stilts. FHM magazine editors weren’t satisfied with an image of pop star Nelly Furtado’s stomach for a cover, so gave her a flatter, muscular replacement, and shortened her shirt to just below her breasts.

Nelly wasn’t happy: “I don’t like being misrepresented to my fans,” she said. “You work hard to represent a certain thing and have a certain image, and somebody can take it all away with the cover of a magazine.”

Scaling the heights

The scale of faked images – from amateur efforts that tap into the political zeitgeist, to fashion shoots, to newspaper covers that claim to portray reality – is massive. With Photoshop-maker Adobe having upwards of over five million registered users of Photoshop and its low-end siblings, and with loads of other image-editing tools available, it’s little wonder that some photographers and editors are calling for some clarity in the age of manipulation. So, where do we stand in the realm of the hyperimage? And, are amateur efforts as dangerous as fake photos in newspapers?

Amateur efforts are more comedy than threat, reckons founder Rob Manuel. Pronounced ‘beta’, is a faked-photo-sharing Web site that was set up three years ago, according to Manuel, after he and a few friends had seen their department shut down at a magazine publishing company. He had been looking at the kind of content he got regularly via email – stuff that “wasn’t highly polished design stuff, just stuff that made me laugh” he said, and was set up to concentrate on content that amuses people.

It’s been a rip-roaring success, according to Manuel, who says visitor numbers keep going up and more people are posting faked images. Manuel says it’s probably because of a large installed base of Photoshop.

Amateur fakes tend to follow trends, says Manuel: “At the moment there’s a fascination with animals – from Beatrix Potter to Aesop’s fables, it seems people like ripping off animals,” he says. “Comedy kittens are huge and don’t want to die, but you also get people who develop their own styles. And, then you get observational humor, such as one image that showed a Scaletric set for the ceiling with model planes flying around. It was just so good, it should exist in real life.”

Some faked images don’t always get such a good reception, says Manuel. Called ‘bandwagoning’, Manuel says it’s when people respond to a famous faked image by creating variations of their own.

“I find that very dull – we need new things all the time, but it’s a low barrier to entry. Recently everyone started doing versions of the iPod ad, such as an iCod. That’s very boring several times in,” he says.

So why are some many amateurs piling into the realm of photo manipulation?

Creating a desire

“People have a desire to create, the desire to communicate their ideas,” says Manuel. “Some people use it to make a name for themselves – some people have ended up with careers in TV advertising. There’s an element of timing… whenever there’s a disaster, you always get a joke doing the rounds.”

Yet what about more mainstream media, where editors are manipulating images in a bid to boost sales? Freelance photojournalist Andrew Wiard says it depends on the image.

“It depends on what you mean by an image,” he says. “I’m not in the least bit concerned here with those that begin life with a Wacom tablet – we are talking solely about those created by the action of light, replicating the external world on a recording medium inside a camera... manipulation, which is drawing borne of anything else, destroys the essential character of a photograph. This is unethical because it is deceptive. The resulting image is no longer photographic, but appears to be so, and just as credible as one drawn by light.

“This matters,” Wiard insists. “If journalism is the first draft of history, photography forms a fundamental part of the historical record itself. To those who say there is a higher truth than the accurate record of reality, the only reply is: go get a paintbrush... do not destroy the truth so highly valued by those to whom it really matters that seeing is believing. Journalists and historians, yes, but above all the countless millions who rely on their papers and books to see the world outside their daily lives.”

Out with the wrinklies

Wiard says that image-manipulation in the press has a negative effect, damaging photographers’ reputations and deceiving the viewer. He cites the use of PR photographs that are manipulated to remove wrinkles from their subjects as examples, or the addition — via Photoshop — of a champagne bottle on the table of a beer-drinking John Prescott with the headline ‘Champagne socialist’ as an extreme example.

So why is the mainstream media seem hooked on manipulation? In a word: speed, says Wiard.

“Joesph Stalin had his minions in his Ministry of Truth remove Trotsky from every photograph in the USSR,” says Wiard. “But it took ages, and even then they made mistakes. There is said to be one ‘photograph’ of revolutionary comrades with twelve heads and thirteen pairs of feet! Flawless fakes can now be produced to daily deadlines, in half an hour between taking a picture and sending it to the paper or the printing press.”

Several things need to be done to stem the tide of false images being passed off as the real thing in newspapers and magazines, says Wiard.

“First, establish recognized symbols for either authentic photographs, manipulated images, or both, and establish a code of conduct whereby newspapers always prominently identify their works of fiction,” he says. “Second, eliminate fraudsters. In the US, Press photographers who pass off fakes as photographs get the sack.

“Third is the use of new authentication software developed by Canon. Every photograph can be digitally imprinted, as it is taken, with a code that will betray any subsequent alteration,” he adds. “This technology is not designed for the benefit of us penniless photographers, by the way, but the world of forensic science and the law. Digitally archived legal contracts must not have the odd zero inserted, and the police are desperate to ditch film, but cannot do so until digital photographs stand up in court. We are all very lucky that they, at least, do not find the concept of truth a faintly amusing irrelevance.”

A brush with history

Yet images have a long tradition of manipulation, even in the Press, according to Tony Freeman, president of the British Institute of Professional Photographers (BIPP). He has a background in Press photography, and says manipulation simply happens.

“In the main, people historically were doing the usual things, such as darkening an image, and even in the Press you’d pop the ball in if it had gone out of the picture, things like that,” he says. “But that was about the limit. There’s always been manipulation, but it was always within the parameters of decency and believability.”

He’s skeptical of labeling images, and feels the reader is cleverer than they are given credit for: “The public will be able to identify what has been altered and what hasn’t, and they’ll insist on having what is correct. Clearly, if you’re going to fool someone, you’re not going to put anything like a logo on the image.”

However, it isn’t just in the realm of newspapers and magazines that images are manipulated. Design, advertising, fashion, and art is perhaps the spiritual home of digital manipulation. And, whereas fabrication in the news is a definite no-no, making new images digitally is a stock-in-trade for image artisans such as Colin Thomas.

Colin Thomas has been a photographer for 30 years, and ten years ago started experimenting with digital photography by scanning images and using an early version of Photoshop. He now shoots entirely digitally, and reckons he spends as much time in front of the computer as he does behind a camera. He feels that despite alarm over digital manipulation, photographs themselves have always been manipulated.

“Photographs have been manipulated, and the fact you can do it by computer just means it’s quicker and easier,” he says. “But, believe me, even in the nineteenth century, when photography was invented, they used to manipulate images to a very considerable extent, to flatter people and to improve images. They would use a paintbrush and a scalpel to work on the negative.

And when you look at prints made all these years ago, you can see the results of the manipulation.”

In fact, Winslet’s slimming at the hands of GQ wasn’t a first – Thomas cites a photo taken in 1943 he has of Hollywood starlet Jane Russell, where the size of her hips are reduced by six inches via fakery. “Image manipulation is not new,” says Thomas – adding that it’s never been the case that “the camera never lies”.

The camera always lies

“That saying is the biggest lie, because the camera always lies, it always has lied. Cameras do not make reality, or even a particularly close approximation of reality. All artists know this, and so do photographers. They don’t have three dimensions, they don’t have the full range of colours and tones that we can perceive in the real world, because they don’t move, they are silent... and so photographs have always been an interpretation of the world made by the particular photographer at the time,” he says.

Photojournalism isn’t exempt, says Thomas, adding that we rely on journalists who write to be as accurate as they can be. That’s why were trust certain journals over others, he says, and this is now the case for the Press photographer – digital-image technology allows the same degree of freedom as someone with a word processor, and that we simply have to rely on journalists to tell the truth.

So what about the kind of commercial manipulation that Colin Thomas does? Isn’t that also faking images to deceive?

“Digital technology allows me to put my hand back into the picture, to borrow the words of Hockney, like a painter,” Thomas says. “The way you can manipulate a photograph with Photoshop takes me back to my days at art school: it used to be that once you’d pressed the shutter release, there were only limited ways that you could affect how your photo looked. Now, Photoshop has taken away all those limitations, and you can do what you like with an image.

“But, Photoshop is just part of the creative process, and it takes a real skill to create successful images,” he adds. “You can’t use Photoshop creatively just by reading the manual, you have to apply your opinion and your artistic skill and creativity. You don’t just press buttons. Photoshop is just a tool, like an artist’s brush; it’s a very elaborate tool and a brilliant piece of software, but it’s still a tool.”

Jay Myrdal agrees. He’s a photographer who has a penchant for digital manipulation. He reckons that while Photoshop and other image-editing tools mean faked images are in abundance, it still takes a real skill to pull of a creative shot.

“The basic rules are still the same. If you’re trying to make it look real, then you need to get your perspectives right, and a lot of people don’t know how to do that, or don’t think it’s important,” says Myrdal. “The important thing is the idea – and there’s no place for manipulation in the Press at all… but the rest is open season, and there should be no problem with ad images being made whatever way they like.”

Yet could the rise of image-editing power at the hands of people not at the coal face of creativity have an impact? Myrdal seems to think so.

Future impact?

“You’ll find more and more people – the artisans of the business – will fall away, and art directors and account people who have the creative ideas will have the tools to execute them theirselves,” he says.

“It’s happening now. There’s not a lot of high-end photography going on, and the mid-range seems completely stripped away, with it down to younger photographers working with digital equipment, working fast and cheaply. But, that’s progress.”

Charles Maxwell, who fell victim to the famous shark attack image when one of his images was used as the basis of the faked image, thinks that a common ground is possible for manipulation.

“Most of us cheat a bit,” he says. “If I have a shot that is too green (a common problem underwater) I will make it bluer. If there are bits of bait floating around, I will paint them out. I will play around with the sharpness and contrast. These things are pretty valuable to an underwater cameraman. After all, if it’s my photo, I can do what I want with it. This is an extension to my creative ability.

“There are two important issues, here,” he adds. “Manipulation should only be done by the photographer or with the photographer’s permission and, second, the photographer should always be honest about such manipulation unless it is an obvious joke or hoax done for a bit of fun. It should be used to improve a picture or to create a fun illusion, but not to create a lie.”

Faking a shark attack

During the hot summer of 2002, a fantastical image made the email in-box rounds. It showed a helicopter hovering over the sea with a man descending a ladder from it, and a huge shark leaping out of the water about the attack the dangling man. Its headline – “You think you’re having a bad day…” made it an instant email smash, and is one of the most famous images to surface in 2002. Only, it was a fake, as photographer Charles Maxwell was soon to discover. It was his image that formed the basis of the picture.

“I didn’t take it too seriously, as I had no idea how big this picture would become,” says Maxwell, who is a leading underwater cameraman. “Then the emails started to pour in on the subject, and it has taken off. A lot of Web sites have used it, and it has been reproduced in many newspapers and magazines in a number of countries. Thanks to the Web sites that covered the story, it was clear that I only took the shark picture, and was not responsible for the artwork or the helicopter shot. It did get me a lot of publicity, and that never does any harm.”

Maxwell takes the whole thing in good spirit: “In theory, I see no problem with the issue of the shark manipulation, if done as a fun thing and with permission from the photographer. The very worst thing anyone can do is to use someone else’s artwork for financial gain without permission,” he says. “I’m not sure where I stand legally with the shark photo. Lawyers are not my favourite breed of humanity, so I have not looked into it. My big mistake was not to burn my name into all the pictures I post on the Internet.

“I guess for the viewer the shark photo was a quick laugh,” he says. “Maybe there was some embarrassment for the early viewers of the shark hoax before the secret was out, who were caught by the hoax and actually asked my opinion about it: ‘do you really get white sharks in San Francisco Bay?’, or ‘surely the helicopter would frighten the shark away?’.”

Maxwell has, though, moved on from the famous image, and says that he doesn’t let it affect his work today.

A brief history of Photoshop

Thomas Knoll and his brother take Knoll’s graphics subroutines, which he had been assembling on an Apple Macintosh Plus, and merge them into an application they tentatively call ‘Display’.

Early success for the fledgling application is limited. Renamed ‘ImagePro’, it’s licenced to ship with a slide scanner. A whopping 200 copies are shipped. Failure is averted, however, after Adobe licenses the application and starts an aggressive development plan. It is renamed ‘Photoshop’.

Two versions of Photoshop ship — version 1.0, and then version 2.0, around eight months later. Version 1.0 allows scanning, works with 24-bit colour, and could convert data between formats. Version 2.0 added the ability to edit selected areas, plus special-effects filters.

Four years in, and Photoshop is at version 3.0 — with a huge gap of three years between versions. An upgrade did ship in 1993, version 2.5.1, which runs on Apple’s brand new PowerPC chip, as well as making its debut on Windows. 1994, however, sees the release of version 3.0 and the ground-breaking release of layers. Version 2.5 has previously added dodge and burn tools, masking, channels, brushes, and PC file support.

Two more versions have been released in the intervening years – version 4.0 in 1996 causes uproar, though, as it changes fundamental key commands. Adobe makes up for this in 1998 with version 5.0, complete with ground-breaking ‘history’ palette, editable type, magnetic lasso, and the History Brush. A year later, version 5.5 will ship with a Web version of the application, called ImageReady.

Version 6.0 ships, and is considered a gem. Adds powerful vector support and PDF output, Layer Styles for layering non-destructive live effects, and on-screen text editing. Its Web tool ImageReady is now more integrated and Photoshop is the de facto image-editing tool, despite newcomers such as Gimp and Paint Shop Pro.

Version 7.0 is here. Noted for its support of Mac OS X, the application now runs natively under Apple’s new operating system. Web output is much better, and the interface is tided up. Optimized to run on Apple’s Power Mac G5 via an update patch.

Adobe releases Photoshop CS - a new versioning system that, while tightening a few bolts and improving the workflow for image editors - doesn’t add many headline effects. Its new image browser and integration into the rest of the Adobe family via VersionCue does impress. Photoshop sees many tools aimed at digital photographers added, such as support for .raw file formats.

Creative manipulation with Coneyl Jay

Coneyl Jay knows all about image-manipulation controvesy – he had people challenge his work when he entered and won a Vision Of Science award for his picture of a nano-probe working with blood cells (see image above, right).

“I created a little nano probe along with some blood cells - all based on solid research - and the final image was created from scratch,” says Jay. “ These probes don’t exist. Yet, when people saw the image, they came up to me and were saying things like ‘this is a photo of something that can’t exist’. It caused a bit of a furore.

“People were attacking it as if I was pretending the image was reality,” he adds, “whereas all I was doing was trying to give an expression to something that was just a technological idea.”

Jay is from a new breed of artist - fluent in photography, as well as art and design: “My job is to manifest things that don’t have any visual representation,” he says.