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Let's move a mouth," says Creyton Jensen.

In the dim light of his computer station, Jensen has pulled onto his screen a photo of Olympic athletes at the closing ceremonies in Barcelona. It is a photo of some of the world's swiftest and strongest.For all their deftness, however, these are people stuck in reality - a place where, for example, you cannot magically trade one person's face for another.

For Creyton Jensen, on the other hand, reality is a lot less confining. Just for fun he picks up his computer mouse, electronically outlines one of the mouths on the screen in front of him, then moves it over onto the face of another athlete.

If you hadn't already seen the athlete as he originally looked - a young man with his lips parted, as if he were in mid-sentence - you'd swear that the new mouth must really be his.You've seen hundreds of examples of "image manipulation" and probably haven't even known it.

The examples range from the benign to the controversial. Most often you'll see them in magazine ads, where, for example, a model's torn cuticle has been electronically manicured to look perfect; a distracting tree has been electronically uprooted and moved to another spot in a car ad. Or the color of the car will have been enhanced to look brighter.

One of the most controversial examples occurred in the early days of computerized image manipulation, when National Geographic moved one of the three pyramids at Giza so they would fit better on the magazine's cover. A lot of people were upset that National Geographic could be so capricious about reality; could be so arrogant as to fool around with a wonder of the world.

Of course photographers and advertising agencies have been retouching photos for years. But the technology catapulted forward in 1979 when an Israeli company called Scitex brought out a sophisticated computer imaging machine. Suddenly anything was possible.

"You're only limited by your imagination," says Mike Boulter, who, like Jensen, is a system operator at Color Image, a Salt Lake color separation company.

Although a few advertising agencies now own image manipulation software, most of the magic is performed by craftsmen like Boulter and Jensen at pre-press shops across the valley.

With a wave of a computer mouse they can change the colors of a bouquet of flowers, remove the wrinkles in a model's bathing suit - and her face - or put snow on a snowless mountain.

"You can't tell it's been manipulated if the craftsmanship is there," says Jensen. "It's all created digitally, so it's seamless."

One of Boulter's clients is an ad agency that recently took some photos for a potato company. The company liked the food shots but decided it didn't like the tablecloth. Instead of re-assembling the photographer, the food artist, the art director and the food for another session, they asked Boulter to create a new tablecloth electronically.

Boulter's tablecloth won't really exist outside his computer screen, but the "end user" - as we ordinary folks are called - won't know that. In the meantime, the client will have saved money and time.

Sometimes clients aren't as interested in saving money and time as they are in putting on the best face. Jill Lee, art director at Gardiner Advertising, says it's not unusual to use image altering in annual reports.

For example, a company may want to include a photo of its building but may not want its stockholders to see all the "For Lease" signs in the windows. With a wave of the magic mouse and a few taps on the keyboard, the signs can magically disappear.

"Since I've been in this business," says Boulter, "I don't trust anything I see in a photo."All of which raises a nagging little question. Are we creating a perfect world, where no hair is out of place, no stone turned, no color dull? A place where we can't trust what we see? A place where people never age?

In the valley's color separation shops they sometimes tattle on a shop owner in town who used his computers to doctor his own wedding invitation. It seems he was marrying a woman quite a few years younger, and he wanted to even out the age difference a little. It didn't take much effort to lighten the bags under his eyes and firm up his sagging skin.

Occasionally all this fiddling around with reality gets someone in trouble.

In 1989, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a photo of a Missouri amateur photographer who had just won a Pulitzer Prize. In the original picture, the photographer was sitting next to a Diet Coke. But when the photo appeared in the paper, the Coke was gone.

The can had been electronically removed from the glass tabletop, replaced with a reflection of the Venetian blinds behind him. The problem was that the Diet Coke had been mentioned in the story that ran with the picture. When word got out about the incident, protests began coming in from people who questioned the ethics of tampering with a news photo.

Since then, the Post-Dispatch, like most other newspapers, has adopted a policy prohibiting the computer manipulation of news photos.

Even if a photo might look better if, for example, a light switch didn't appear to be growing out of a person's head, the Deseret News will not manipulate the photo, says photo editor Tom Smart. "To do it at all," reasons Smart, "establishes doubt" in the minds of the readers.

The only exception, he said, was the blurring of a juvenile's face in a recent arrest photo. The News sometimes uses color enhancement and other manipulation techniques in photo illustrations, but identifies them as such.

The risk that image-altering technology might tempt the unscrupulous, however, is real enough. Two years ago in the Massachusetts governor's race, the staff of William Weld was widely criticized for tampering with video images of Weld's opponent, John Silber - tilting and slightly distorting Silber's face so that he looked subtly more menacing.

Most of what gets manipulated, however, is fairly inconsequential. And some of what gets manipulated is so creative it will take your breath away.

Intersep, a Salt Lake color separation company, last year won the "best of show" award at the Scitex Imaging Awards Competition for the poster it produced for the Children's Dance Theater. Intersep also won an award for a photo used on a calendar for Motor Cargo of North Salt Lake.

In this one, Intersep combined eight different photos to create an eerie scene of a truck traveling through two seasons simultaneously.

In the rear of the picture, red rock buttes are dusted lightly with snow (although they weren't in real life). In the foreground, the desert is hot and dry (the wind-blown sand was also created electronically).

Although Scitex originated image manipulation technology, there are now at least a dozen other similar systems available, plus two dozen less-intricate software image-editing packages that can be used on personal computers.

"This technology is coming to the masses," says Intersep president Tom Pettinger. "Within five years it will be fairly common."

The family photo album may never be the same.