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Digital Deception

The Cultural and Historical Context of Larry's Face

By Bruce Goldfarb

It's long been said that you can't believe what you read in the papers. Now you can't even trust your own eyes.

As Larry's Face amply demonstrates to amusing and sometimes creepy effect, photo-manipulation software widely available today makes it remarkably easy to fake digital images. The possibilities for mischief are limitless. What do we do now, for example, with photographic "proof" of a spouse's infidelity?

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec sits for a self portait, circa 1890.

The art of trick photography is almost as old as the technology itself. Early on, inventive people learned about double exposures, perspective tricks, cut-and-paste and other ways of altering photographs.

From the '20s to the '50s, photo-retouching was perfected in the Stalinist Soviet Union for the purposes of propaganda and re-writing history.

Critics of the state and prominent officials who fell into disfavor were routinely arrested and executed, then painstakingly removed from photographs and historical records. In time, the collective memory eventually loses grip on whether the person ever existed. Revisionism didn't die with the Soviet Union.

The Vanishing Commissar: Soviet dictator Josef Stalin with and without Nikolai Yezhov, commissar of water transport. Yezhov was executed in 1940.

One of history's most controversial cases of alleged photo alteration is an image of Lee Harvey Oswald taken by his wife, Marina.

The photo (right), published on the cover of Life magazine on February 21, 1964, shows Oswald holding a copy of the Daily Worker and the Mannlicher Carcano rifle later used to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.

Several aspects of the photo are peculiar, according to conspiracy theorists. For one thing, Oswald's body casts a shadow to the 11 o'clock position, while the shadow beneath his nose appears to result from a light source directly overhead. Some say that the rifle is too long for Oswald's height. Others have noted a faint horizontal line beneath his lip, possibly indicating a splice. During his interrogation, Oswald claimed that his face had been superimposed on somebody else's body.

Evidence against fakery is the fact that Oswald reportedly had several copies of the photograph and even gave some to friends. Photography experts say that close analysis of the emulsion grains shows no signs of trickery.

In recent years, digitally altered and "sweetened" images have crept into mainstream media -- without adequately informing readers. While falling short of the nefarious purposes of old school Soviet-style propaganda, the intent is still to create the illusion of reality.

We expect camera tricks and computer-generated images (CGI) when we go to the movies, but not while watching television news or reading a newspaper or magazine.

Here are some examples. Click on any image for a larger version:

For its February 1982 cover, National Geographic moved one of Egypt's pyramids over just a bit to enhance the composition of the photograph. The magazine called it "retroactive repositioning of the photographer."
Texas Monthly's July 1992 "White Hot Mama" photo of Gov. Ann Richards was sensational. Richards' only contribution was her head; the body belongs to a model. Readers who read the tiny photo credit inside the magazine were told the truth.
The cover of the February 16, 1994, Newsday shows Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan practicing together at the Winter Olympics. In small print Newsday admitted that the image is a composite, but for many the picture overpowered the words.
Time darkened O.J. Simpson's mug shot and reduced the size of the numbers, making him look more sinister. Compare with the original mug shot. Time might have pulled off the deception, but Newsweek ran the unaltered image on its cover the same week.
Kate Winslet complained that the doctoring of her February 2003 GQ cover photo was excessive. "I don't look like that and more importantly I don't desire to look like that," the actress said. "I can tell you that they've reduced the size of my legs by about a third."

With the emergence of the web, idea and images and have a way of taking on a life of their own, virally replicating and inculcating popular culture. There are a number of such web memes, including the lovesick Turk Mahir Cagri, Mustard Man, "All your base are belong to us," and most recently the Star Wars Kid. Larry's Face was not an attempt to create a meme, but that's another story.


Shortly after the horrendous events of 9/11, a story was widely circulated that was too amazing to be true. A camera that somehow survived the devastating collapse was found on a sidewalk. When developed, the film revealed a tourist on the World Trade Center, a low-flying plane in the background. Tourist Guy became folklore.

The astute observer may detect the image as a fake. The North Tower had no open observation deck; it's the wrong type of plane at the wrong angle; and Tourist Guy is dressed too warmly for the weather. Tourist Guy has subsequently been identified as a 25-year-old Hungarian named Peter who wishes to remain as anonymous as possible.

Tourist Guy is well on his way to becoming the most-Photoshopped person in history, with extensive galleries at, and elsewhere.

As the first draft of history, the media have an obligation to document events truthfully and accurately. We live in an era when images are carefully choreographed, when politicians use staged settings and phrases in the background to further partisan goals. With hot-button issues it is even more important to view the media with a skeptical eye.


Many newspapers have taken liberties with reality while covering the Iraq war. On April 1, 2003, the front page of Los Angeles Times featured an image by photographer Brian Walski (top left) of a British soldier and Iraqi civilians outside Basra. The soldier is directing people to take cover from possible Iraqi fire.

The photo was distributed to other Tribune papers, and also appeared prominently in the Chicago Tribune and the Hartford Courant.

The photo was identified as a fake by an alert Hartford Courant employee who noted repetitions in the crowd. When questioned by his editors by telephone from Iraq, Walski admitted using Photoshop to combine two images taken moments apart (middle, bottom left).

Walski blamed his lapse of judgement on fatigue and the drive to come up with a better photograph. Named 2001 Photographer of the Year by the California Press Photographers Association, Walski was fired by LA Times and now finds his career in the tubes.


A little more than a week later, on April 9, the front page of London's Evening Standard showed a photograph of a supposedly large and enthusiastic crowd celebrating the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (right).

According to The Memory Hole, the photo was spotted as a fake by Simone Moore on the UK IndyMedia site. An IndyMedia user named Gnu and a Memory Hole reader named Daedalus identified several suspiciously repeating patterns in the crowd that strongly suggest that the image is a composite. Some people in the crowd seem to appear three times.

The Evening Standard claims that the image is a video grab from BBC, and that the only alteration was the removal of a television logo and replication of part of the background. The paper denies intending to deceive readers about the size of the crowd.

A greatly enlaged version of the image is here, and a blow-up of the patterns in question is here. Judge for yourself.

The reach of digital tampering now extends to the television screen. When you watch a sports or news program, what you see may not actually be in front of the camera. Companies such as Princeton Video Image (PVI) have developed the means to digitally alter live television programming in real-time -- on the fly. The technology can be used to project a first down line onto football fields, or insert virtual advertising onto walls and backgrounds. Players can move in front of the digital inserts, which appear on television but not in the stadium.

Source: Virtual Advertising Systems

PVI says that its virtual imaging can put a different message in the same scene each time a show is broadcast, or insert different products by geographic regions.

"From street signs to cereal boxes, PVI can accomplish the ultimate in product placement within existing television programs or movie scenes," according to the company's web site. "When viewers tune in to their favorite TV shows, your message can be part of the scene."

In 2000, CBS News took heat for digitally inserting its eye logo over an NBC screen during its live New Years coverage in Times Square. Other examples abound. As digital cameras become more common in news studios and in the field, opportunities for mischief will increase.

Few are aware of it, but for several years network news programs have been using equipment capable of performing a sort of digital cosmetic surgery, smoothing wrinkles and defects on the fly. When we watch television news, we're actually seeing a slick version of Max Headroom.

If the history of print images is any indication, the emergence of real-time digital video manipulation is particularly troubling. Computers are a force for the democratization of global communication, and a powerful tool of propaganda. Sooner or later some clever person will figure out how to game the system and make the public believe they witnessed something on live television that never really happened.


Photo Foolery - Site developed by National Geographic to help kids spot faked photos.

Fake or Photo? - An exercise to test your judgement.

The Commissar Vanishes - Online exhibit from the Newseum on the falsification of photographs in Stalin's Russia.

Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography - Informative material from the National Press Photographers Association.

Is Seeing Believing? - A resource about digital manipulation for teachers.

Writer Bruce Goldfarb can be found at