Two distinct processes can give rise to digital images. On the one hand, they can be created entirely by computer, as animations or as single computer-generated images. On the other hand, they can be produced photographically, through digital cameras and camcorders, or through the digital scanning of photographs originally recorded on celluloid. When a real visual scene is photographed digitally, the scene’s pattern of light and color is translated into a rectangular grid of pictorial elements, known as pixels. Variations in brightness or color from one pixel to another are recorded in terms of discrete, fixed units – hence, “digitally” – instead of the continuous gradations employed by analog media.
These properties of digital photographs, which are also characteristic of wholly computer-generated images, have substantial technological consequences. Digital images can be copied repeatedly with no significant loss of information between one generation and the next. Likewise, they can be transmitted without significant loss across computer networks. Perhaps most notably, from a communications perspective, digital images that started out as photographs can be manipulated and altered by computer.
Potentials Of Digital Imagery
Because of the dominant position of Adobe Photoshop in the market for photo manipulation software, the term “photoshop” has now entered the dictionary as a synonym for the act of computerized photographic manipulation. The term is also commonly used to refer to the manipulated image itself. However, software for the manipulation of photographs had been in use for at least a decade before the commercial release of Photoshop in 1990. A notable early instance was the February 1982 cover of National Geographic magazine, in which the position of an Egyptian pyramid was shifted in order to create a more pleasing design. Popular media portrayals of computerized photo-manipulation often paint an exaggerated picture of what it can accomplish. For example, in the 1998 movie Wag the Dog, a single tap on an editing keyboard instantly transforms one object into another in a news video.
The actual capabilities of Adobe Photoshop and similar software are much better represented by the National Geographic example. As far as substantive changes in an image are concerned, the capabilities that matter most are the following: (1) the ability to detach an object in the image from its background more precisely and more efficiently than was typically the case through traditional cut-and-paste methods; (2) the ability to selectively resize portions of an image relative to the rest of the image; (3) the ability to clone parts of an image and paste the cloned patterns, colors, or textures elsewhere in the image; and (4) the ability to change an image’s brightness, contrast, and/or color values in a much less cumbersome manner than that entailed in traditional photographic darkroom work. In one combination or another, these four types of operations have been responsible for a series of photo-manipulations that have periodically raised public concerns about the social implications of digital imaging. The first two are exemplified by the notorious post-9/11 hoax entailing the insertion of an incoming airliner in a photograph of a tourist on the observation deck of the World Trade Center (an image subsequently rumored to have been retrieved from a camera that was found in the buildings’ ruins). During the Israel–Hezbollah war of 2006, cloning was used to amplify the smoke over Beirut in a news photograph that led to the dismissal of a Reuters stringer. And, following O. J. Simpson’s arrest on suspicion of murder, the fourth type of manipulation was used to darken a Time magazine reproduction of his booking photograph.
Pros And Cons
Two somewhat contradictory tendencies recur in scholarly analyses of this aspect of digital imaging. On the one side are those writers who are concerned about the erosion of the evidentiary value of photography. In a book originally published in 1990, Fred Ritchin (2006) describes the sense of dislocation and rupture that he felt when he realized that a news image of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman was actually a digital composite and that the two actors had never been in the same physical space when the original photographs were taken. As Mitchell (1992) has argued, during a century and a half of traditional photography, the chemical basis of image creation had underwritten public belief in a causal link between photographs and reality. According to Mitchell, the advent of digital imaging has severed that link and ushered in a new, “post-photographic era,” in which photographs are now no closer to reality than handmade pictures or other non-photographic images are.
In seeming opposition to such views, though, other writers have argued that the idea of photographic truth has always been an illusion and that concerns about digital lying are misplaced (Kember 2003). According to the authors of a theoretical treatise on new media, “Digital photography poses a . . . threat for those who believe that the traditional photograph has a special relationship to reality. . . . But in any case photographic ‘truth’ was not unassailable even in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (Bolter & Grusin 1999, 106).
Indeed, photographs that were recorded on celluloid and printed on paper have always been subject to alteration through cutting and pasting. Moreover, as photo-editor Kenneth Brower has pointed out, such darkroom manipulations as “burning” or “dodging” – i.e., selectively over-or under-exposing portions of a photographic print so as to emphasize certain features and suppress others – were considered routine, unremarkable elements of standard photographic practice (Brower 1998) .
Finally, since every photograph is the product of an inevitable act of selection as to where and when to record an image, there is a sense that no photograph can avoid manipulating reality (Lang & Lang 1971). With these considerations in mind, writers such as Julie Newton (2001) have argued that, far from representing a radical departure from earlier photographic culture, what digital images have brought about is a heightened appreciation of the complex nature of photographic truth and falsehood. This awareness is reflected in the work of professional photojournalists and editors, who are reportedly more attentive to certain practices, such as cropping, which might previously have passed without comment (Gross et al. 2003), and it is also evident in the writings of academic authors with photojournalistic experience, who have invested considerable effort in the delineation of the boundaries and contexts separating acceptable from unacceptable forms of visual manipulation (Wheeler, 2002; Lester, 2005). In a related development, the systematic detection of digital manipulation has received increasing attention from such writers as Brugioni (1999), and Hany Farid has developed a substantial body of computerized techniques for that purpose (Lyu & Farid 2005; Popescu & Farid 2005; Farid 2006).
What is less clear is how the broader public views these matters. Vicki Goldberg has noted that, even as early as the post-Civil War period in the US – i.e., barely 25 years after the introduction of photography – the use of photographs as evidence in a courtroom trial was felt to require corroboration by expert witnesses who testified as to the photographs’ authenticity (Goldberg 1991, 24). Since the advent of digital imaging, several instances of computer manipulation – for example, Time’s O. J. Simpson cover – have received considerable attention in the mass media. After it was revealed that TV Guide had pasted Oprah Winfrey’s head onto the body of actress Ann-Margret for a cover photo, the magazine published a humorous apology, in which Oprah’s head was superimposed on the bodies of a number of other celebrities. Moreover, increasing numbers of nonprofessionals have direct experience with image-editing software.
These circumstances suggest that the general public is not entirely naïve about digital imaging technology. As far back as the 1990s, surveys by Messaris (1997, 156 –160) and Huang (1999) point to widespread knowledge about the digital manipulation of images, together with relatively nuanced views about the acceptability of such practices. Moreover, research by Greer & Gosen (2002) suggests that greater understanding of the technology is associated with increased likelihood of its acceptance. Of course, these trends do not preclude the possibility that substantial numbers of people may still be deceived by any one instance of digital tampering. Awareness of a principle is not the same thing as being able to detect all of its applications. For example, in a study of college students’ ability to discern the superimposition of one person’s head on another person’s body, about a third of the sample failed to detect a manipulated image, and about two-thirds incorrectly imputed manipulation to an image that had not been altered (Wheeler 2002).
Although issues of photographic truth and falsehood have received the lion’s share of attention from writers concerned about the implications of digital imaging, such concerns should not blind us to other important ways in which digital images have affected the nature of visual communication. The fact that digital images can be manipulated by computer may have substantial social consequences even when the manipulation is transparently obvious and freely acknowledged. Moreover, the other characteristics of digital imaging – their replicability and ease of distribution – are significant in themselves, even when an image has not been manipulated in any significant way. Both of these possibilities figure prominently in studies of nonprofessional users of digital imaging technology (e.g., Cohen 2005; Majid 2005). Because the market for digital media has experienced the same trend toward lower prices that has occurred in other sectors of the computer-related economy, the development of digital imaging has led to unprecedented levels of public access to the technologies of visual production, postproduction, and distribution. These developments, in turn, have nourished a widespread belief that digital technologies may loosen the grip that large corporate media have historically exercised over the flow of public communication.
The Use Of Digital Imagery In Journalism And Filmmaking
Emblematic instances of this putative trend are not hard to find. In the realm of visual journalism, the Iraq war has provided several notable examples of photographs that achieved wide circulation despite the fact that they were taken by nonprofessional photographers (Griffin 2004a; Perlmutter 2006). A study by Frank (2004) has also drawn attention to amateur web posters’ extensive use of Photoshop and related software to create composite images that comment on the news in a manner somewhat similar to that of traditional editorial cartoons. Focusing specifically on visual reactions to the terrorist attacks of September 11 – for example, a picture of Osama Bin Laden superimposed on the center of a urinal – Frank argues that such amateur image making may be seen as a corrective to the restraint of the professional press and, at the same time, a protest against that restraint.
A parallel widening of the scope for amateur creativity is also taking place in the world of film and video, whose production practices have been affected radically, at all budgetary levels, by the advent of computer-based editing. Since the late 1990s, a number of movies produced entirely on consumer-level digital video have entered into commercial distribution, beginning with The Last Broadcast (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). The latter is notable for its innovative use of the Web as a means of generating advance publicity.
According to Holly Willis, the fact that The Blair Witch Project grossed $140 million on a production budget of $40,000 “helped spark an avalanche of interest in digital filmmaking, and along with it, a renewed rhetoric of transformation” (Willis 2005, 30) – i.e., a belief that digital technology would enable a renaissance of independent filmmaking in the US and elsewhere. However, Willis herself approaches such claims with caution. She notes that similar aspirations have been ignited repeatedly by previous waves of technical innovation – for example, analog video in the 1970s – only to be extinguished by the inertial power of existing institutional and economic arrangements. While it may be true that technologies of digital production and distribution have made it possible for a number of individual filmmakers and other creators of images to break out of obscurity, it does not necessarily follow that these technologies will lead to any enduring changes in the flow of information and ideas through the mass media. As Griffin (2004b) has observed in a study of newsmagazine visuals about US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the broad patterns of pictorial coverage adhered to established narratives despite the publicity given to “spontaneous” images from the field. The established media industries have a history of absorbing or out-competing independent operators, and it should not be taken for granted that this historical trend will cease to operate in the case of digital media.
One issue that is often overlooked in discussions of the transformative powers of digital media is the fact that the wide availability of photo-manipulation technologies has not been matched by the other major category of digital imaging, namely, computer generated imagery (CGI) and computer animation. The ability to create photorealistic images entirely by computer, and to make them move in a naturalistic manner, is still largely confined to the professional media industry and, most prominently, to special-effects houses. Scholarly analyses of special effects have noted their role in enhancing the visual spectacle of Hollywood movies and providing a measure of insulation against competition from television and independent cinema (Darley 2000; Pierson 2002). Dalianis (2005) has argued that digital effects are analogous to the spectacular visual creations of baroque art, whose function was also to bolster the social position of its patrons.
On a more metaphorical level, Bukatman (2003) has interpreted F/X scenes of flying superheroes as compensatory reactions to the anxiety-producing dislocations of rapid technological change. Within the media industry itself, however, the trend toward digital effects may also serve another function. To the extent that effects become major sources of movies’ commercial appeal, they may contribute to wresting control of production away from powerful stars and returning it to producers and directors (Messaris 2006). Such a development would indeed constitute a transformation in the distribution of media power, although not of the sort that most digital-media enthusiasts have been hoping for.
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