Reading Blog 6 (History 697): When Does Photograph Tinkering Cross the Line?

I am fascinated with the various techniques that Photoshop offers for restoring, colorizing, and aging photographs and images. The possibilities and variations seem endless. In many instances, the techniques are fairly simple, such as Cameron Moll’s guidelines for adding wear to images and photographs — all to create that ‘wicked worn look.’  But other techniques demonstrated in the tutorials on restoring and coloring photographs seem a bit more complex  and challenging. Up to this point, I’ve tinkered in Photoshop with cropping and coloring photographs and matting a cartoon-style poster image. My results have been mixed, principally because the functions of the various layers  are not always clear to me.  But, more importantly,  I find that the tutorials are often using earlier versions of Photoshop that don’t quite line up with the 2014 version that I’m using. The newer version seems to have made changes or, for the expert designers, “improvements” in the functionality of the software. For a novice like me, those differences all add up to some level of confusion. For me, overcoming that confusion becomes the real challenge.

Photoshop’s ability to alter images and photographs not only sparks my imagination at the seemingly  endless design and restoration possibilities, but it also gives me pause. At what point does tinkering with the integrity of a photograph cross the line? And by “line,” I mean the complete alteration of what the original photographer intended to capture, or what he or she ended up actually capturing, in the original photograph. My fear is that anyone, particularly historians, can go into Photoshop and alter an image significantly by erasing content, shifting the subjects’ positions or poses, replacing backgrounds, etc. And these things are happening now throughout the world for propaganda reasons. Just look at the images of missile tests thrust upon the world by Iran. We now know the Iranians altered those images significantly in order to create a false impression that hid the failures inherent in those launches.  Detecting altered images seems to be a more daunting task today as the software becomes more sophisticated and new techniques emerge, such as Cameron Moll’s ‘worn’ methods.  Who’s to say if that photograph of a flying saucer is real or “Photoshopped”?  I know imagery experts in the Department of Defense who tell me that altered digital photographs are becoming nearly impossible to detect. Or maybe there really are aliens visiting us! I think a couple of them may be working for me.

My concern  with the tinkering of photographs in the historical realm clearly concerns an ethical code that I believe is inviolable. To what degree should a historian alter or restore a photograph used to supplement a historical argument? At what point might such “image tinkering” be deemed revisionist? Granted, photographs begin decomposing and changing within seconds of the shutter’s click.  But I think that we historians take comfort today in the fact that most photographs taken before 1995 existed almost solely on film, which is much more difficult to alter significantly without detection. If we want to tinker with one of these film-based images, we must digitize it. But we can feel secure in the fact that the unaltered negative still exists as a frame of reference. But what about those post-1995 (my date is a bit arbitrary here) images that exist strictly in the digital medium? How will we ever know what the original looked like?  The scenario that plays over and over in my mind is this one: What if digital-image technology existed during World War II? Could a historian today who happens to be a Holocaust denier go into a nationally archived digital collection of World War II photographs and possibly alter some of them to support his or her revisionist inclinations? I know that this scenario seems far-fetched, but people have attempted to do similarly outlandish things to influence the historical record. A few years ago, Sandy Berger, a former member of the Clinton Administration,  pilfered from the National Archives several potentially incriminating documents in the name of his old boss, President Clinton.  Naturally, Berger was caught. But for every  “document thief” the archivists have caught, how many others have been successful? What would keep someone from possibly deleting or altering a digital image forever?

For me, the ethics of photograph alteration in the context of historical representation are clear: Do as little tinkering as possible. If someone colorizes an old black-and-white photograph as part of a business-related Web site, then I see no problem. The design principles behind creating an eye-catching Web design for most folks should be obvious. But tinkering with an old photograph by a historian who intends to use it in support of a historical argument requires much greater care and discretion. If the restoration or other tinkering helps to clarify the image’s original content, then so be it — as long as the historian overtly and clearly documents those alterations. Anything beyond that approach is, for me, strictly taboo. As historians, our ethics must remain above reproach, especially as we venture into the digital history realm, where sometimes not all is as it may seem.

Steve Rusiecki

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