A picture may no longer be worth a ``thousand words.'' New computer-processing techniques have rendered photographs only as valuable as the integrity of the people who publish them.
Three years ago, National Geographic editors pored over a color photograph of camels walking in front of the pyramids at Giza in Egypt. The picture was too wide to fit on the magazine's standard cover.
What to do?
The photograph was turned over to computer specialists and -- presto -- the pyramids, which had stood immobile for 45 centuries, were moved closer together to accommodate the cover of Geographic.
Changing the position of the pyramids did little to alter the truth of the National Geographic cover. William W. Smith, the magazine's director of engraving and printing, defended the process by saying the same picture could have been produced if the photographer had just moved a few feet to get a slightly different angle.
Mr. Smith may have been correct, but the last three years have brought this same technology to many newspapers and magazines.
Now, by using a computer, an editor can alter almost anything he wants about a picture -- the color of the grass, the location of buildings, or which people are depicted. In many cases, not even experts can tell that the photograph has been doctored.
``The opportunities to manipulate a photograph, to change a photograph, to mislead the public, who currently puts great trust in printed photographs, is great,'' says C. Thomas Hardin, president of the National Press Photographers Association and director of photography at the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times.
``The burden will be on the people in management to maintain standards,'' he said.
The computerized process works like this: A black-and-white negative or a color transparency is inserted into a machine that converts the picture into digital information -- colors and the relationships between objects in the photograph are preserved very precisely. The picture is then displayed on a video screen. A computer specialist can then manipulate the data stored in the computer to alter the picture on the screen, until the desired result is achieved.
This system has many practical uses.
For example, a photo editor, looking at the picture on a television screen, has a clearer idea of how that photo will look when it appears in his publication.
David Grey, graphics director for the Providence (R.I.) Journal, predicted that this type of production will soon be common in most newspapers.
What bothers him, he said, is the lack of concern that the people selling these machines appear to have for photographic ethics.
``I just came back from a convention where I saw all of the vendors of these machines demonstrating their ability to put another chimney on a house or to take elements of one picture and put them in another,'' he said. ``But no one was . . . treating a photo as a piece of journalism.''
Some photojournalism experts, however, say the computer will do little to change honesty in photography.
``Let's put this in context,'' said National Geographic's Smith. ``Ever since the development of photography, people have changed photographs to fit editorial needs. It has always been a matter of where you draw the line between honesty and intent to deceive.''
Photographers who wanted to lie have been able to do most of the things that the computer can do, some experts say.
The difference was that before the computer, manipulating a photograph took longer to do and was easier for an expert to detect.
Good newspapers and magazines will undoubtedly maintain their ethics. But critics say it is increasingly difficult to detect manipulation and believe the public should be aware it is possible.
At USA Today, such digitized computer processing is a major tool in the photo department, but director of photography Jackie Greene said no one has even experimented with using the equipment to manipulate photographs.
``We have established a policy that we would do no more correcting on a photograph than we would do with normal color processing,'' Greene said. ``We use the machines mostly for transmitting and receiving pictures. We haven't experimented [with photo manipulation]. We've stayed away from it.''
Using the computer to create images is just in its infancy, and some graphics experts predict that in the not-too-distant future, it will be possible to create human images on videotape.
On the positive side, they say, vintage actors such as Clark Gable could be revived and star in new movies; on the negative side, people may not be able to trust what they see on television news.
``It could be like Orson Wells's `War of the Worlds,' only more so,'' said computer graphic consultant John D. Godell, referring to the 1930s radio broadcast about an invasion of Martians that had thousands of people convinced it was true.
``Say if [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi had the facilities to produce a computer image of Reagan or one of our big newscasters,'' Mr. Godell said. ``He could broadcast them announcing we were about to drop the bomb, and that would create chaos.''
Many experts say the public now will have to be more wary of photographs -- and later of television news -- and that truth in photographs will be like truth in the printed and spoken word.
It will be up to each publication to maintain its own credibility, they say, and once that credibility is compromised, the public will have no reason to trust their own eyes.