Now You See Him, Now You Don't
By Andrew Curry
In the iconic image, Lenin stands alone atop
a wooden dais, speaking to a rapt crowd filling the square in front of Moscow's Bolshoi
Theater. But someone is missing. When the
photograph was first taken in 1920, Lenin's comrade Leon Trotsky stood nearby. Seven years later,
power struggles forced the revolutionary from the
Soviet Communist Partyand so a photo retoucher
meticulously painted him out of the picture.
The Soviet impulse to alter images isn't anything
new. In ancient Rome, the Senate wiped its deposed emperors from the historical record by a decree of damnatio memoriae (condemnation of the
memory), removing their names from public inscriptions and destroying their statues. A century ago, one common con was a "spirit photograph"
with the floating faces of deceased relatives. The
pictures were really double exposures. The famous
Cottingley fairies hoax, perpetrated by two Victorian teens posing with paper fairy cutouts, took
decades to discredit.
But the most dramatic and damaging examples
of alteration probably come from Joseph Stalin's
Soviet Union. With paint, razors, and airbrushes, Soviet graphic artists and censors erased the
memory of the party's enemies by removing the
faces of purged leaders and party officials from
photographs. "The physical eradication of Stalin's political opponents at the hands of the secret
police was swiftly followed by their obliteration
from all forms of pictorial existence," writes
David King in his pictorial history, The Commissar Vanishes.
Part of Stalin's legacy was an industry of photo
fakers who became active in the Cold War battle over public opinion. In the 1950s and '60s the
CIA began to focus on a flood of altered photos
coming from the Soviet bloc, hoping to glean information about Communist leaders and military
capabilitiesand to sift out and discredit pictures
that were faked for propaganda purposes. A top
priority was to determine who was in and who
was out from changing images of public appearances, as photo manipulators moved certain leaders to the periphery. Analysts also revealed that
photos of Soviet industrial and military prowess
were often just retouched pictures of American
factories, with workers clumsily disguised in different clothes.
Today, computers have made the job of altering
photos easier. "[Computers] are destroying the
credibility of photography, and it's getting worse,"
says Dino Brugioni, a retired CIA photo analyst and
the author of Photo Fakery: The History and Techniques of Photographic Deception and Manipulation. Examples are often subtle. Newsweek
straightened the teeth of septuplets mom Bobbi
McCaughey in a cover photo. National Geographic has shifted photo elements for a cover shot, once
moving the Great Pyramids electronically so they'd
line up in a row for a 1992 cover. Editors defend
the changes, which they say are made for the sake
of artistic purposes or heightened effect.
Though the media are the most visible culprit, it is the courtroom that may face the most
profound changes from the rise of digital photography. With basic computer programs and
limited skills, crucial details can be deleted or
addedincriminating skid marks removed from
pictures of an accident, bruises added to pictures
of an assault victim. Accustomed to presenting pictures as indisputable evidence at trial,
"judges and lawyers are still back in the Stone
Age," Brugioni says. "Photography shouldn't be
accepted as prima facie evidence in court any
longerdigital cameras can erase the evidence."
After all, a modern mouse is much easier to wield
than a Roman chisel.