The recent furore over a manipulated photograph of Beirut was utterly justified but is absolutely nothing new. The only difference between modern photographers and those in years gone by is the easy availability of computer software to do the donkey work.
Geoff Dyer has written an illuminating article in today’s Observer reminding us that photo manipulation has been taking virtually place since cameras were invented
The camera is the eye of history,' declared Matthew Brady, who took some of the best-known photographs of the American Civil War. Actually, there is no direct source for the quotation. Also, because of his poor eyesight, Brady himself didn't take many of the photographs commonly attributed to him. A number of 'his' pictures were actually taken by the team working for him. Still, we see what he meant: the camera shows what really happened, for the benefit of posterity. Philosophers might debate what 'really' really means but most people agree that a photograph, unlike a drawing or painting, 'quotes' directly from reality - hence its power as evidence.
Last week, the reliability of this form of evidence was again called into question when it was revealed that the picture of an Israeli air strike on Beirut had been manipulated by the photographer, Adnan Hajj. Smoke had been added, using Photoshop, to increase the scale and intensity of the destruction, Hajj insisted he'd only been trying to clear dust from his image - by adding more? - But Reuters immediately withdrew the picture and announced that it would no longer accept work from him. While taking advantage of the latest technology, it is part of a tradition almost as old as photography itself.
Some of Brady's Civil War work was actually done by Alexander Gardner who, in 1863, took a picture of a dead rebel sharpshooter at Gettysburg. It's a great photograph, well worth the effort of dragging the corpse 40 yards, propping its head on a knapsack (so that it faced the camera) and leaning a rifle (not the sharpshooter's, but one Gardner carried as a prop) against the barricade for dramatic effect.
Eight years earlier, in the Crimea, Roger Fenton photographed the cannonball-strewn aftermath of the Charge of the Light Brigade. The picture was an immediate success, underscoring the heroic sentiments of Tennyson's poem, even though it was not actually this valley that the Light Brigade had charged down. Not only that, but Fenton did two versions of the same scene, one in which the cannonballs lay as they were found; another - the one always reproduced - in which the cannonballs, had been more dramatically and abundantly 'scattered' by the photographer's assistants.
In both these early examples, the raw material has been adjusted in such a way as to enhance a more general truth (a poetic one, in Fenton's case). This kind of thing went on throughout the 20th century - Robert Capa's claim to have caught the moment of a republican soldier's death in the Spanish Civil War is still disputed - and continues today as photographers exploit the poignancy of a child's death by nudging cuddly toys closer to a blood-stained hand. What is surprising, Sontag suggests, is not that this happens, but that we are surprised and disappointed to learn that it does.
A different kind of ethical blemish attaches to manipulating the picture after it's been taken. It is, in other words, not the scene itself so much as the record of the scene that is considered sacrosanct. If the communist habit of airbrushing undesirable elements such as Trotsky out of history provokes laughter rather than opprobrium, that is only because it is so ham-fisted. This was the practice that elicited Milan Kundera's famous declaration in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: 'The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.'
The difference, now, is that anyone with a computer has access to these laboratories. Photographs can be retouched with the press of a button, almost as soon as they are taken. History can be changed as it happens, before it's even written. While the existence of untouched originals or negatives offered a standard against which any subsequent alterations could be compared, the digital revolution has done away with the primacy of the original.
Does this mean that the idea of truth itself is being undermined? On the contrary. The attendant uncertainties reaffirm a basic human longing for accuracy and verifiability. The fact that pictures can be so easily manipulated greatly enhances the value of those that aren't. Hence the strict rules that news agencies such as Reuters and newspapers such as this one impose on their photographers.
Though long-frustrated, the urge to create an objective visual record made the eventual invention of photography inevitable. The subsequent urge to tamper with that record is no less predictable but consider, by analogy, the premise behind another technological innovation. If human beings weren't programmed to tell the truth as they see it, how could a lie-detector ever be expected to work?
Even though a picture is now so easy to manipulate in my view it does not prevent an image from becoming iconic. I have set out below a few such photographs from the past plus a recent one that will sadly be one of those that sums up the invasion of Iraq. Photoshop aside there will still be great photographs in the future.