Category Archives: Assignment 4

Assignment 4: Real or Fake

Assignment Brief

The last few exercises should have helped to clarify your opinion on the potential for altering content and viewer’s perception in an image, and helped you to define your own stance. The purpose of this assignment is for you to demonstrate this stance and the means involve completing a task which lies in the middle ground of the real versus fake argument.

The object is to produce a photographic image to illustrate an imaginary book or magazine cover. Covers are sales vehicles for their content, and so often quite widely interpreted by art directors, illustrators and photographers. The moral ground is therefore potentially ambiguous.

Decide on a topic to be illustrated, you could take an existing book and devise a new cover for it that gets the theme or story across to a prospective reader, taking a photograph especially for it. Explore the areas of adjustment and (possibly) manipulation that would make the image successful as a cover. This might, as just one example involve shading or extending an area at the top in order to make space for the title. Or you might choose to combine two visual elements (juxtaposition)

Accompany the finished image with a description of the techniques you considered using and finally used, and also your ethical justification.


The debate on real or fake has shadowed photography for decades, well before the advent of computers and image editing software. From modification through pushing and pulling film to enhancing contrast levels in Photoshop, photographers have always undertaken a level of processing to provide them with the most out of the image. While these modifications and removal of dust spots, stray telephone lines etc. can make an image more aesthetically pleasing, the original intent is still there, albeit adjusted but if a person visited the location, they would see enough to recognise it. Where the debate becomes cloudier is in the addition or removal of components that give the image a different context and feel.

Originally the view was that the camera never lies, however with the advent of combination printing where photographers such as Rejlander combined a number of negatives to form one image in ‘Two Ways of Life’, this was proved to be wrong. (Jeffrey, 1996)

It’s hard to write about real or fake without referring to some well-known cases, and one of those has to be the Cottingley fairies. I recently visited the National Media Museum in Bradford where there is a collection of some of their cameras and a reproduction of one of their images showing that the use of techniques to add to a composition have long been in place and that our current software suites are just another tool to create with. Looking at the image with modern eyes and knowledge it’s easy to believe that these are not necessarily faked images but composites mixing reality and fantasy. Would I have had the same thoughts viewing those at the time? I don’t know, I think I might have taken them at face value and believed the fairies did exist without the obvious signs of manipulation, and to put it in the context of the back end of the First World War, it was possibly a lot more believable than it would be today.


At the other end of the scale of deliberate manipulation is the 2003 case of Brian Walski. I only stumbled across this when I was searching for some examples of modified images and found the article to be fascinating. While taking pictures in Iraq, Walksi took two images in close succession and used Photoshop to merge these into one. Van Riper writing for the Washington Post states that ‘He had to consciously manipulate his two digital pictures in Photoshop-an action requiring both skill and intent. He had to create the separate, faked image and –again with intent- transmit it to his editors saying nothing about the alteration’.

This was only noticed when a duplication of the background was spotted, if there had been no forensic trace of the blending, would this have been identified as fake or would it have been accepted as per other images from an established photojournalist who up until then had a history of credibility?

For me, the debate is not black and white and it very much depends on what the use of the photograph is and the context in which it’s being used. For this assignment, the end product I’m producing is a book cover; looking at other covers they are more an exercise in design to get the reader interested than to portray reality. In the case of Walksi, my views are much clearer, if the photograph was to depict a factual moment in time then modification should not have been used, I understand that it created a stronger image but is verging towards propaganda in influencing the audience towards a particular viewpoint. If it had been portrayed in an exhibition or gallery as an example of the conditions in Iraq, then I feel that it wouldn’t have been viewed so harshly.

My research has moved from not just faked photographs, but also to the ethical debate on staging photographs or posing subjects and implying that it’s actually happened in that way and at that point in time. This isn’t something that’s clear cut and we’ll all have our own ideas. For this assignment, my brief is to portray a book cover that stands out, attracts the viewer’s eye and gives a hint as to the story contained within.
With my other photography I will happily modify my images for aesthetic purposes by undertaking digital development, sharpening, removing stray dust spots and minor blemishes. I will consider the audience for the work when I decide what Photoshop actions I need to undertake, and while I can’t say that I won’t ‘fake’ aspects, I can see that these are more for images that will be displayed as art not realism.

The Subject

After giving some consideration to what I could use as a subject, I first of all considered a magazine cover, and then I considered a take on one of my favourite books that’s fantasy based and would be a good subject. The book I chose to re-design was ‘The Affinity Bridge’ by George Mann, essentially its a genre known as steampunk where history as we know it took a different path and we have the Victorian era with airships, automatons, steam powered vehicles and Queen Victoria being kept alive artificially. I’d taken a number of photographs of the peak district landscape as I knew they would be a useful backdrop for the exercises in assignment 4 and I specifically took a number of photographs of this crumbled road knowing that it was a good canvas to add to.

There are two covers to the novel, and I only found the second one after this had been completed so to see that I’ve also echoed the cog design was quite interesting. However I used the cogs as they symbolise elements in the story as well as being one of the most recognisable icons of steampunk related paraphernalia from jewellery through to clothing.

The Process

I checked the background for anything modern and I removed the car, telegraph pole and white lines on the road using the clone stamp tool. I then selected just the sky and used adjustments so that I decreased the brightness and increased the contrast to bring more colour back into the white sky as it was quite white. I worked with layers a lot here, converting the image to monochrome. I then edited an image of an airship, using the magnetic lasso tool to highlight it, and then I boosted the colour to a more brass/gold tone. I then copied this as a layer and pasted it twice into the image to get a feeling that there were fleets of airships.

In order to enhance the steampunk theme of the book, I took a photograph of a leather cog shaped necklace I’ve got, cropped this, saved it as a layer and then pasted it twice in. Using the history brush to remove the white background I’d taken the image on, I took my time and worked carefully to erase the white so that the cogs were standing out.

To finish the image, I chose the viner hand itc font as I wanted something that wasn’t quite modern and put the title and author at the top of the page where I had the expanse of sky and while I always envisaged the text there, it really stands out and works well.

In all I’ve spent around 8 hours working through Photoshop to get this how I wanted it. Effectively editing an image is not a quick process, it needs to be considered and done with care so that any major editing to create a ‘fake’ image will be done with thought and the knowledge that you want to create this effect. It’s not a quick mistake, it’s a planned action.


I could potentially put more detail into the book cover to make it more fantasy related in line with the real covers, but I wanted an edge and sense of realism and I think through the use of the photograph as opposed to drawn or illustrated background this adds interest to the story and what will happen to the UK with the different plot points. While the novel is London based, there are elements such as the use of airships (dirigibles) and the revenants that spread out of the capital.

The Original Covers







The Affinity Bridge- My cover










Bibliography & References

Jeffery, Ian. 1996. Photography: A concise history. Thames and Hudson. London. 2nd edition. Rejlander image p 43

Van Riper, Frank. Manipulating Truth, Losing Credibility. Available through The Washington Post. [Accessed 16th August 2012]