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Editing our photographic memory

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Showing off the smiling faces of her family in church, the portrait on Patty Cosenza's bookcase was just about the perfect keepsake of her daughter's wedding. Just about.

"But he was in it," says Cosenza.

"He" being the former boyfriend of another of Cosenza's daughters. At the time, she said, it was just assumed that the two would marry - he was practically a member of the family. But things didn't work out that way, and the daughter has since married someone else. The former beau was out of the picture, but only figuratively.

That changed when Cosenza took the print to her local photo lab. With a few computer keystrokes, the inconveniently placed ex was eliminated. The void in his absence was closed to place the two daughters side by side.

"It was amazing," she says. "When you look at it, you would never know that he was in the picture."

Thanks to digital technology, pictures don't just preserve our memories, they can now shape what our future memories will be. Photo-restoration specialists say requests to have ex-spouses removed from family portraits have become increasingly common. Other recurring assignments include placing people into events they didn't attend and sprucing up a subject's appearance. And as Photoshop software becomes a standard feature on home computers, manipulating the past is easier than ever.

An unreliable record

The theme of altering or erasing our memories is a favorite in science fiction. Philip K. Dick, whose writings spawned the movies Blade Runner and Total Recall among others, made a career of creating hapless characters who discover that their memories - and hence, identities - are fabrications. More recently, the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind portrays a former couple who undergo an operation to erase their memories of each other.

If you go by these examples, mnemonic tinkering may not be such a good idea. But altering snapshots from last year's barbecue is hardly the same as planting chips in our brains. So what's the harm of getting rid of some extra flab, or an ex-spouse?

"You do have the potential for that altered event to become the memory," said Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychologist who specializes in memory. "There may be a time when you might want to remember what actually happened, but find yourself unable to do so."

From the very first pinhole camera, people have looked to photography to record life's fleeting moments, both good and bad. Is a Photoshop future one with no reliable record of our personal histories? Will our scrapbooks be full of memories that never happened?

After all, the past is a dodgy thing, and our recollections of it are a good bit more malleable than we might think. In a recent study, subjects were shown photographs from their childhood and told to recall the events behind them. Most photos were real, but in each case, an image of the subject as a child was digitally inserted into a picture of a hot-air balloon. Half of the subjects remembered the event. Some even filled in details like the day of the week and the cost of the balloon ride.

"In short, the problem with doctored photos is that they can change your memory," says Maryanne Garry, one of the psychologists behind the study. "We think photos are reliable, but they aren't."

As age warps our memories, it's easy to remember things that didn't happen even without the help of fake photos, says memory specialist Elizabeth Loftus of University of California, Irvine.

"We're probably all running around with some false ideas about our identities," Loftus says. "Your memory tends to shift in a direction that makes you feel better about yourself - you voted in elections that you didn't vote in, you got better grades than you did, you gave more to charity than you did."

So even benign changes to our snapshots, like straightening our teeth, exploit a natural inclination toward remembering a more ideal past.

"People will become more and more adept at it," she says. "We're just learning this technology. Who knows where it will lead us."

Healing wounds

For Cosenza, though, altering her family portrait was simply a matter of practicality.

"It was just a great picture of my children and grandchildren," she says. "I would never do that with other pictures, but as a mother I felt I had to. I have a new son-in-law, and it was awkward."

Paul Berendsohn, owner of a Connecticut film and imaging business, can sympathize.

"In the case of taking a former spouse out of a photo, it's a fresh wound," he says. But he sometimes cautions customers of the perils of altering history. Customers have found old photos in their attics and asked him to erase the people they don't recognize. "Who knows - the person you removed in the background may turn out to be important," he says.

Another photo shop owner, Chris Brown, says he takes pride in helping his customers realize their ideal selves. For instance, forward-looking high school students often want their acne removed from senior portraits.

And the new technology even brings families together, he says. Brown points to a woman in the back row of a photograph and notes that she was in another country when the picture was taken. It was for a family reunion that the woman couldn't attend.

"It was nice for the grandchildren to have her in the shot," he says.

All of this is happening when scrapbooks and archiving personal histories have become bigger than ever. Stores specialize in selling wares for customizing photo albums. Scrapbooking is now a verb and has its own show on cable TV, on the Do It Yourself Network.

"People are trying to get back in touch with family," says Deb Rice, owner of a scrapbooking store. "Especially after 9/11 - that was kind of a turning point."

So shouldn't this put a premium on accurate photos?

Actually, says Larry A. Viskochil, a retired curator of photography at the Chicago Historical Society, photographs should never be the last word when it comes to history. From the beginning, he says, subjects have been posed and vital information left out of the frame. Though Americans get much of their information from visual sources, he says, few have learned to look at pictures critically. Maybe, he says, digital technology will finally push us to hone our skepticism.

"All photographs lie - or don't tell the whole truth," he says. "It all depends on the photographer, and it depends on the viewer. People see what they want to see."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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