This image of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “How the Right Went Wrong”. The image was doctored to include a tear on Reagan’s face. Time issued a statement saying it regularly runs what it calls “conceptual covers.” They said: “This week’s cover image is clearly credited on the table of contents page, naming both the photographer of the Reagan photo and the illustrator of the tear.”
Though photo manipulation has become more common in the age of digital cameras and image editing software, it actually dates back almost as far as the invention of photography. Gathered below is an overview of some of the more notable instances of photo manipulation in history. For recent years, an exhaustive inventory of every photo manipulation would be nearly impossible, so we focus here on the instances that have been most controversial or notorious, or ones that raise the most interesting ethical questions.
We’ll continue to update this gallery as more incidents come to our attention, so if you come across any notable ones you think we should include, feel free to send us an e-mail at
[Click thumbnails to view complete images.]
Under the headline “Rove personally connected to email scandal”, a photo of presidential adviser Karl Rove was said to provide evidence that the White House had created an independent e-mail system for communicating outside of the White House’s email system, which is automatically archived for record-keeping. The doctored photo, however, was part of an April Fool’s joke and marketing campaign by the Internet design company Coptix. “We watched the misinformation filter upward and outward,” said a Coptix spokesman. “This has driven tens of thousands of visitors to our Web site. … We consider our Web marketing experiment a success.”
Newspaper photographer Allan Detrich resigned from The Blade of Toledo, Ohio after admitting he had altered a photo that appeared in the paper. Detrich submitted at least 79 photos for publication since the beginning of the year that were digitally altered, 58 of which appeared in print. In a printed letter to readers, Blade Editor Ron Royhab said “the changes Mr. Detrich made included erasing people, tree limbs, utility poles, electrical wires, electrical outlets, and other background elements from photographs. In other cases, he added elements such as tree branches and shrubbery.” The Blade released three examples of how Detrich altered photos. “Readers have asked us why this was such a big deal. What’s wrong with changing the content of a photograph that is published in a newspaper? The answer is simple: It is dishonest,” Royhab wrote. “Journalism, whether by using words or pictures, must be an accurate representation of the truth.”
The New York Times published this digitally altered photograph. In a correction, the Times’ editor said “The wood siding at the far left of the building was out of alignment because the picture was retouched by a Times staff member who took the picture, but who is not a staff photographer. He altered it because a flash created a white spot on the picture when he shot it through the window of a train. Also, the retouching tool left a round circle on the building’s window at the right”. The Editor’s note concludes with “Times policy forbids the manipulation of any photograph. Had editors been aware of the manipulation and seen the original picture, they would have either published the picture with the blemish or not used it.”
In an advertisement for IMAX 3D theaters promoting the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the bust of actress Emma Watson was digitally enlarged. A similar advertisement in regular theaters was unaltered. Warner Brothers Pictures released a statement that said “This is not an official poster. Unfortunately this image was accidentally posted on the IMAX website. The mistake was promptly rectified and the image taken down.”
The biceps of tennis player Andy Roddick were conspicuously enlarged on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine. Roddick commented that he was “pretty sure I’m not as fit as the Men’s Fitness cover suggests”. He also noted that a prominent birthmark on his right arm had been erased. Richard Valvo, a spokesman for Men’s Fitness, said, “We wouldn’t comment on any type of production issue.” Adding, “I don’t see what the big issue is here.”
The cover of Redbook magazine featured a heavily retouched (and thinner) image of singer and actress Faith Hill. Redbook was accused of contributing to the unattainable body image created by digital retouching. In response, Redbook’s editor-in-chief Stacy Morrison said, “The retouching we did on Faith Hill’s photo for the July cover of Redbook is completely in line with industry standards.”
Missouri University professor R. Michael Roberts and co-authors retracted their paper (Cdx2 Gene Expression and Trophectoderm Lineage Specification in Mouse Embryos) published in Science after an investigation revealed that accompanying images were doctored. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the published research presented evidence that the first two cells of mouse embryos possess markers that indicate from a very early stage whether they will grow into a fetus or placenta. An investigating university committee found that lead author and post-doctoral researcher Kaushik Deb deliberately altered images of the embryos. Deb abruptly resigned his position and moved with no forwarding address or explanation. The committee said Roberts was cleared of wrongdoing by the committee, but that there was some concern over “whether he had acted appropriately at all times” during the research period. “Since he addressed that in the letter he sent to Science, we had no reason to suspect anything other than that he had been tricked.”
The August 2007 cover of the scientific publication Nature featured three autonomous aircraft taking atmospheric measurements. The top and bottom aircrafts, however, were cloned copies of each other. After a keen-eyed reader discovered this photo alteration, the Editors printed the following clarification: “The cover caption should have made it clear that this was a montage. Apologies.”
The Kentucky state Republican Party distributed campaign flyers that depict Steve Beshear, the Democratic nominee for Governor, as a high-roller leaning on a casino table. “Don’t gamble on Steve Beshear and his fool’s gold casino plan,” said the campaign material. State Republican party chairman Steve Robertson said the photo is of Beshear’s head but someone else’s body. “It is a humorous way to communicate the message,” Robertson said.