First Published: August 15, 2008-- REMOVING her ex-husband from more than a decade of memories may take a lifetime for Laura Horn, a police emergency dispatcher in Rochester. But removing him from a dozen years of vacation photographs took only hours, with some deft mouse work from a willing friend who was proficient in Photoshop, the popular digital-image editing program.
Like a Stalin-era technician in the Kremlin removing all traces of an out-of-favor official from state photos, the friend erased the husband from numerous cherished pictures taken on cruises and at Caribbean cottages, where he had been standing alongside Ms. Horn, now 50, and other traveling companions.
"In my own reality, I know that these things did happen," Ms. Horn said. But "without him in them, I can display them. I can look at those pictures and think of the laughter we were sharing, the places we went to."
"This new reality," she added, "is a lot more pleasant."
As image-editing software grows in sophistication and ubiquity, alterations go far beyond removing red-eye and whitening teeth. They include substituting head shots to achieve the best combination of smiles, deleting problematic personalities or adding family members who were unable to attend important events, performing virtual liposuction or hair restoration, even reanimating the dead. Revisionist history, it seems, can be practiced by just about anyone.
As people fiddle with the photos in their scrapbooks, the tug of emotion and vanity can win out over the objective truth. And in some cases, it can even alter memories -- Cousin Andy was at the wedding, right?
In an age of digital manipulation, many people believe that snapshots and family photos need no longer stand as a definitive record of what was, but instead, of what they wish it was.
"It used to be that photographs provided documentary evidence, and there was something sacrosanct about that," said Chris Johnson, a photography professor at California College of the Arts in the Bay Area.
If you wanted to remove an ex from an old snapshot, you had to use a Bic pen or pinking shears. But in the digital age, people treat photos like mash-ups in music, combining various elements to form a more pleasing whole.
"What we're doing," Mr. Johnson said, "is fulfilling the wish that all of us have to make reality to our liking."
And he is no exception. When he photographed a wedding for his girlfriend's family in upstate New York a few years ago, he left a space at the end of a big group shot for one member who was unable to attend. They caught up with him months later, snapped a head shot, and Mr. Johnson used Photoshop to paste him into the wedding photo.
Now, he said, everyone knows it is phony, but "this faked photograph actually created the assumption -- people kind of remember him as there."
THE impulse to record family history that is more wishful than accurate is as old as photography itself. In the 19th century, people routinely posed with personal items, like purses or scarves, that belonged to absent or dead relatives to include them, emotionally, in the frame, said Mary Warner Marien, an art history professor at Syracuse University and the author of "Photography: A Cultural History."
In India, she said, it is a tradition to cut-and-paste head shots of absent family members into wedding photographs as a gesture of respect and inclusion. "Everyone understands that it's not a trick," she said. "That's the nature of the photograph. It's a Western sense of reality that what is in front of the lens has to be true."
As recently as early in this decade, most people still recorded their family history primarily in film, photography experts said, meaning modifications were limited. Even among digital devotees, only professionals or ambitious amateurs typically would buy computer programs like Adobe Photoshop.