It is true that The National Geographic moved two of the Egyptian pyramids closer together on a cover, to fit the vertical format. And, yes, the cover photo on A Day in the Life of America was manipulated to move the cowboy closer to the moon, again to fit the format.
Photographer unknown. Composograph of Alice Rhinelander in court, 1925.
In 1991 a photograph surfaced that supposedly showed three American Vietnam pilots alive after 20 years in captivity. Then the Pentagon found a 1923 photograph of three Soviet farmers that exposed the image manipulation.
George Mahlberg. Oswald/Ruby as a Rock Band, 1996. Adaption by George E. Mahlberg of original photograph by Bob Jackson, 1963.
Does that mean photographic truth is at an end? Who says it ever existed? Photographs have always been manipulated. Usually the results have not been big whopper lies, pictures that claimed something happened when it didn't, but less serious sins, touch-ups in ads and portraits. The tabloids have always used a bag of photographic tricks. In early examples, as when cameras were barred from courtrooms, scenes were staged and images created through cutting and pasting to show what happened. The tabloids still use photographic trickery to turn the fantastic into the supposedly realistic, showing Actor A with Actress B when they never met, or Elvis alive and well in Country C (or on the moon). With the tabloids "Believe it or not" can mean mainly "not"; seeing is not necessarily believing.
When will digital manipulation become a serious problem? We'll see. So far, no digitally manipulated image has provided the occasion for a major crisis in the truth-versus-falsehood department. It may happen tomorrow, or it may never happen as imagined, with someone creating a fake of something important and getting away with it at first, affecting public opinion.
Photography has always been awarded a special status for truthfully recording the world. But that doesn't mean all photographs, all the time. Digital imaging may pose a serious challenge to traditional photographic technology film, cameras, paper. And it may eventually affect how people view the images they see in newspapers and magazines, or even in family albums. Right now it looks as if the digital effect on photography is more on transmission and handling than on image-creation. There was always darkroom trickery retouching, double-exposure. It's just that such effects are easier to produce now, and less easy to detect.
The problem is that with digital manipulation of photographic images so simple, a slippery slope is created where minor cleaning up of an image can easily lead to major
changes. It is not easy to identify a point where truth is lost and the picture enters the realm of fiction. In a world of images showing the most fantastic, imaginary situations in the most realistic, convincing fashion think of science-fiction films, or the more exotic kinds of still advertising images the balance may be shifting between traditional straightforward photographs and more spectacular kinds of images made through digital manipulation. It is possible that audience tastes and our sense of an image's credibility are shifting as well: do we still draw sharp lines between news photographs and the other pictures we see in newspapers and magazines?
There is one other potential problem with digital imagemaking. In the civil trial for the murder of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J. Simpson cried "fake" when a photo turned up showing him wearing Bruno Magli shoes, the kind responsible for bloody footprints at the crime scene. The contact sheet (apparently) was convincing evidence and proved him wrong. That may be hard proof to come by in the future, when photos on digital cameras leave no tracks, as it were, and certainly no negative. In the past the negative was the key physical record of the photographic act and a guarantee of sorts for photographic truth.
Our sense of the truth to be found in images may be changing because of digital manipulation. But we still are waiting for our first great test case of digital truth, that is, digital lying.