Deep Fakes Are Nothing New In History
I had headshots taken recently to use for publicity photos. My target market is book clubs, and I plan to make myself available on Zoom to groups that might want to discuss the novel with me in person, so my goal was to look approachable.
I met a friend who’s a professional photographer and we spent a half hour snapping photos. Afterward, he whittled down a hundred images to four and touched them up, removing a white truck in the background and giving my face a virtual spa treatment. This process was very different 150 years ago, when people had to sit with faces frozen until the exposure set and didn’t have the luxury of a dozen do-overs. But are my touched up and curated photos really anything new?
When I worked in the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library archives, we had two copies of a photograph of Wilson meeting with his cabinet after one of many strokes he suffered while in office. In one, there is a white cane propped on his chair. In the other, the cane has been removed, erasing the question of his disability. World leaders used altered photographs to change history, removing people as they fell out of favor. Photographers sometimes stitched heads on different bodies in the darkroom. This impulse to convey an “adjusted” reality is probably an age-hold human impulse. Art historians detect alterations in paintings made centuries ago.
Documents, too, can be preserved or destroyed or changed. The writers themselves may have applied their own literary “airbrush” as they wrote, filtering thoughts and feelings. The famous correspondence between aging founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was calculated to burnish their images for the historical record. They were well-aware that their letters would be read for generations.
These days, everyone knows photos can be “Photoshopped.” Anyone active on Facebook knows that people curate the images they share, and kids can make deep fake videos with their iPhones that are only going to get better as the technology improves. Most of us are becoming more skeptical of what we see, thinking like historians and requiring evidence from multiple sources before we accept something as true. Although there will always be some who blindly (ha ha!) see only what they want to see.
So, can we trust our eyes at all when we look at artifacts from the past? I like to think there is some kind of essential truth buried beneath deliberate interventions, an authentic humanity that we can feel if we look deeply and really see, with our hearts as well as our eyes. Consider the photograph below of Abraham Lincoln, still mourning the death of his young son during the Civil War.
Lincoln often disparaged his personal appearance. When debate opponent Stephen Douglas accused him of being two-faced, he responded, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?” But, although many thought him ugly, others who met him in person felt like Lillian Foster that “the good humor, generosity and intellect beaming from [his face], makes the eye love to linger there until you almost fancy him good-looking." Or, the Utica newspaperman who reported, “After you have been five minutes in his company you cease to think that he is either homely or awkward.”
Look deeply at the photo of Lincoln above. What do you see?
Image above: Civil war photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.