Can pyramids be moved? Just ask the people at National Geographic. They moved a pyramid at Giza in a photograph for the cover of their May, 1984, issue. The pyramid’s original position, it seems, did not suit the magazine’s cover format.

The technology used to achieve this feat-digital image processing (DIP) is a form of electronic wizardry that can imperceptibly alter photographs. The concept is simple. Any image can be reduced by a scanner into millions of tiny “dots,” which are translated into a digital code and stored on magnetic tape. The dots-technically, a binary pattern of positive and negative impulses-can then be rearranged and copied endlessly. The machine replaces the art of the retoucher; photographs and illustrations can be made aesthetically superior by adding colors and deleting objects, or they can be combined with other photographs to create entirely new images.

While the alteration of photographs is as old as photography itself, this new technology has many advantages. Alterations can be made faster, better, and with no trace of tinkering. DIP’s speed and efficiency allow for later deadlines, eliminating four or five steps between developing a roll of film and putting a plate on the press. The process also allows wire photos and even stories to be sent through telephone lines directly into a DIP machine. These also store type, so operators can create complete page layouts.

But DIP is also a new and powerful tool for those who might be willing to sacrifice ethical standards for a better looking (and more salable) magazine. “We had a cover of a man opening his pay envelope with peanuts falling out,” says Sarah Murdoch, editor of Successful Executive magazine. “We wanted one of the peanuts to come out of the page so we cloned one from the left and moved it to the right. It made me wonder. We had, in effect, changed a law of nature because the peanut was not doing that. It’s tempting to fool around with DIP. You can blend images you could never have had before or you can solve design problems by moving images to fit the cover. But we have to use it with caution and with good taste.”

For the cover of the October, 1986, issue of Saturday Night, Senator Keith Davey’s face was retouched using DIP. “At the shoot,” says Bruce Ramsay, Saturday Night’s art director, “the makeup was too heavy-handed. The lip gloss looked stupid. DIP plowed away the makeup, letting Davey look more natural.”

The problem for editorial staff is where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable alterations. Ken Rodmell, vice-president, creative, of Key Publishers, publishers of Toronto Life, Quill and Quire and Canadian Art, among other titles, puts it this way: “You have to judge it on intent. There’s nothing wrong with making a product look as perfect as possible. There’s nothing evil or dangerous in improving faces on covers, such as eliminating pimples or clearing bloodshot eyes. But I think to distort the truth when it comes to issues is unconscionable. That should not be allowed.” As a hypothetical example of something that shouldn’t be allowed, Rodmell describes an imaginary photograph of a beautiful sandy beach in front of luxury hotels, to be used for a travel spread. But there also happens to be an ugly oil refinery at the other end of the beach. Using DIP, the refinery could be removed from the photograph: a blatant misrepresentation.

So far, one reason why DIP hasn’t been widely used-or misused-by publications is simply the expense involved. The necessary equipment can cost $3-million or more, depending on the size of the system. Removing the lip gloss from the photo of Senator Davey cost $650. Doug Flint, plant manager of Toronto-based Litho Plus, a color separation firm that’s a subsidiary of Maclean Hunter, says he gets few requests for such cosmetic surgery because of the $300- to $400-per-hour cost of using the DIP technology. However, he says, creating complete page layouts on the computer, involving multiple photographs and type, becomes cost -effective compared to traditional methods. Indeed, large U.S. publications such as Time, Newsweek, USA Today and Reader’s Digest routinely use DIP in their production systems.

In Canada, there are 19 DIP installations at companies such as Maclean Hunter, lithographers Herzig Sonierville, and Legg Brothers, a color separation house. David Legg, president of Legg Brothers, says 50 per cent of DIP users are advertisers. Companies assembling catalogues and fashion magazines requiring retouching constitute the majority of the remainder.

However, the move towards more widespread use of DIP by Canadian newspapers and magazines appears inevitable. Oggie Bannock, Toronto sales representative for West German DIP manufacturer Hell Graphics Systems, says refinements to the technology have already brought prices down slightly. Doug Flint notes that hourly charges for using DIP equipment have been cut in half in the past four years. That, plus the advantages the technology offers, make it increasingly attractive to publishers.
But as DIP’s use spreads, editors will need to be diligent in fighting the temptation to use its wonders at the expense of journalistic ethics. “Traditionally, we imagine a photograph to be a depiction of something true,” says Ken Rodmell. “We’ve all heard, ‘The camera doesn’t lie.’ In the hands of someone unscrupulous, DIP could do a lot of damage to our credibility.”