When does a picture tell the truth?

June 28, 1994

When is a picture worth a thousand words, and when is it just a lie? That was one of the questions raised last week by a controversial Time magazine cover depicting celebrity suspect O.J. Simpson. The illustration, created from a police mug shot taken after Mr. Simpson's arrest, was produced by electronically darkening the subject's skin slightly to heighten an effect of menace. Newsweek magazine ran the same cover photo in unaltered form.

Was the Time cover a deliberate distortion of a factual document? Not at all, said spokeswoman Nancy Kearney, who drew a distinction between "straight" photography -- the police mug shot -- and a "photo illustration" created from it by Time's cover artist.

But some questioned Time's judgment in manipulating the original photograph -- especially when the subject touched on the emotionally loaded issue of race. U.S. News & World Report co-editor Merrill McLoughlin said the picture was misleading because Time didn't change it enough to make it clear the cover was an artist's interpretation, not a news photo.

Since the invention of photography, the images created by camera and lens have been nearly synonymous with truthfulness in the popular mind. "The camera never lies," goes the old saw -- despite the many well-documented deceptions based on cleverly doctored likenesses of fictitious people or events. Photography's "truthfulness" is, in fact, mostly an optical illusion. But two recent developments have heightened concern over the issue.

The first is the spread of digital imaging technologies that use computers to touch up pictures. Unlike the relatively primitive dodging and burning techniques used in chemical darkrooms, digital techniques involve electronically reshuffling thousands of tiny "pixels," or picture elements, often making it nearly impossible to spot a fake.

The second big change is that the techniques are no longer confined to the tabloid press but now find their way into mainstream news organizations. Recently, digitally altered images have turned up in the Washington Post, New York Newsday, Sports Illustrated and Newsweek.

It's too late to reverse this trend, which is intimately tied up with the electronics revolution now transforming the communications industry. But editors need to at least make clear to readers when images have been altered to change their meaning. Otherwise, the line separating fact from fiction could easily disappear altogether.

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