It's not like it hasn't been done before; it has. The problem is, it is so easy now, anyone can do it, and we'd never know because the tools are so subtle. I'm talking about doctored pictures — manipulating images, or what simpler folks call "lying." There used to be a saying on the Web: "Pictures, or it didn't happen." No more.
You can look at an ordinary image, video or filmstrip that seems just as real as the room you are in right now, but it ain't.
I recently bumped into a thesis video (hold on, it's waiting at the bottom of this page) created at the University of Illinois. It was prepared and narrated by a student-faculty team. What they did — and they did it so matter-of-factly, and so well, I was ... well, I was startled. Because when I was growing up, the folks who faked the photos got caught. Over and over.
For example, my history teacher in high school showed me Stalin's retouching of Lenin rallying the Soviet troops before they headed off to Poland. There's Lenin, up on the podium, apparently alone.
The problem, my teacher said, is "Where's Leon?" As it happens, Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev were there that day, too. Both members of the Central Committee, they were possible successors, Stalin's rivals. You can see both of them in the original photo, standing below the podium, on the right. But Stalin didn't want them there. When he became leader of the USSR, they were airbrushed out. Stalin did that all the time. But very often, somebody had the tell-tale original.
The "gotchas" — when someone exposed the fraud — were so wonderful. In this account from Clean Cut Media, I learned about the time TV Guide ran a cover of Oprah leaning on a huge pile of cash. The cash, of course, was fake.
But Oprah's legs? Well, turns out they weren't Oprah's. The artist put Oprah's head on a copy of Ann-Margret's body.
Neal Peters Collection
I could go on and on, but before we get to the video, you have to see this image of a Jessica Simpson lookalike. She's a Victoria's Secret model, lolling alone on a sun-drenched beach. Or should I make that, lolling "not quite" alone, because, as the close-up shows, in the original picture, she had a companion who was apparently almost erased, but not quite. There are four phantomlike fingers still curled around her shoulder.
Mistakes like this aren't going to happen anymore — nothing that gross. I know that because of what Kevin Karsch, Varsha Hedau, David Forsyth and Derek Hoiem do in this video, daringly called "Rendering Synthetic Objects into Legacy Photographs."
Their video is a demonstration, not of state-of-the-art fakery — that would be Hollywood's thing, or the Pentagon's — no, this, I'm guessing, is basic, off-the-shelf technology packaged for ordinary users.
"Our system requires a small amount of input that nonexpert users can supply in only a few minutes," says Kevin Karsch. But oh, my — the video begins with an imaginary bulb traveling through a room casting perfectly accurate light and shadow on different surfaces. They roll fake balls across real floors awash in sunshine, plop fake ice sculptures onto piles of sunlit snow — just take a look. (You don't have to watch the whole thing to see what they can do.)
And at the end of the video, when they show you a set of real pictures and faked ones and ask, "Can you tell which of them are real?" I couldn't. And neither could their university friends. At the end they add a chart, "Percentage of Times Users Chose Synthetic Over Real" and their system — proudly labeled "Ours" — did better every time.
Congratulations, Kevin, Varsha, David and Derek. But let me talk to you about that photo of all four of you dancing naked on a beach with Vladimir Lenin, Oprah and somebody who looks an awful lot like Jessica Simpson. Explain that, if you please.
And, why make fun of guys when, thanks to sharp-eyed NPR intern/photo enthusiast John Rose (who showed this to me), we can make fun of ladies, too! Here, if you dare, is Fotoshop Beauty Regimen by Adobe— a spoof video that erases everything about you that isn't perfect. Just click!
Correction Feb. 2, 2012
In an earlier version of this post, the authors of the video/paper were described as graduate students. Several of the authors are, in fact, faculty members at the University of Illinois.