Unfortunately, this isn’t really a Halloween-y post, but the topic can get a bit spooooooky. OK, I’m probably stretching it, but I’m in the Halloween spirit, sorry ’bout it.
This week we are considering digitally altered or forged sources. We’ve read a few articles and looked through some galleries of fakes to get a grasp on what can and is being done in the world of digital trickery.
I’m pretty inexperienced when it comes to spotting a Photoshopped image. When it comes to images in popular magazines or advertisements, I assume they have been touched-up, at the least, and probably contain some slimming, tucking, and lifting many times.
For some reason, however, I’m less apt to think about the same types of manipulation when it comes to news photographs and even less so with historical images. As far as images in the news media go, I should definitely be less naive. Luckily for me, there are often internet sleuths who swoop in to debate the integrity of an image.
As for the historian in the digital age, I feel like there isn’t much more to be worried about than in the past. “A search for historic image forgeries” tends to bring up photos of fairies and ghost, some with misleading captions, and even a super creepy looking fake baby Adolf Hitler.
Most of these forgeries were done at the same time the photo was taken, and they are usually easy to spot with the modern eye. But there are historic images that have been edited in our time, like in-a-gadda-da-oswald, though many of these are easy to spot as well.
I don’t really see the evidence of any major modern historical hoaxes or forgeries. That isn’t to say that historians shouldn’t be aware that it could happen, but even in the digital age we generally get our primary material from institutions that we trust. Images from the National Archives or the Library of Congress should be trustworthy, although the historian must still keep an eye out for manipulation contemporary with the image’s creation. The problems will arise for historians of our current time, when they have to sort through all the digital alterations and distinguish between cosmetic, malicious, and playful changes that have been made.
One of the pioneers of digital photography forensics is Hany Farid. After reading several articles with quotes from Farid and checking out his blog I’ve picked up a few things to keep in mind when examining an image for potential tampering. At the most technical level, Farid uses specialized software he has created to find any digital artifacts that indicate a forgery. However, there are less technical means of spotting giveaways.
For instance, shadows play a major role in authenticating an image. Another potential give away is color consistency; if the colors or the clarity of certain parts of the image seem different than the majority of the image then portions may have been added or parts may have been heavily retouched. This seems especially true in historic photos. In cases where people have been painted out of the image or dancing fairies have been added in, it is clear to see the inconsistency if you look close.
In sloppier cases, even modern Photoshoppers will leave the evidence of their changes in plain view, causing us to not only laugh, but also reconsider just how often the images we see have been manipulated to present a specific ideal.
In the modern age, whether we have our historian hats on or not, we have to be mindful of potential tom-foolery. It is encouraging to imagine, however, that historians may have a leg up as we are trained to examine all sources with a critical eye. Undoubtedly, however, there will surely be some altered images that will slip past even the most critical eye.