Sunday, March 24, 2013

Photography Never (Always) Lies

Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images

An art show in New York this spring has moved on to Washington D.C., and it proved so popular that its exhibit catalog sold out and had to be reprinted. The show has the straight-forward and self-explanatory title of

...which is to say (in case the image is too small to see), "Faking It: Manipulating Photography Before Photoshop." (The shot above is the cover to the exhibit catalog, from which the historical examples below come. This book is very thorough and very interesting: highly recommended.)

Photoshop is one of those terms like xeroxing a document or doing a google search for a website where the specific brand new now has become a generic verb. To "photoshop" somebody into (or out of) a picture is a widely understood expression. In a group shot of Language Arts, for which I was up on a bridge, it was suggested that I photoshop myself back into the shot. Well, no, but maybe I could give Harish Rao open eyes, since they seem to be closed in every group photo we try to take.

I first learned about a prototype of Photoshop --- and I will use a cap letter, since I mean the full, legal, proprietary program, from Adobe --- from the then-AVC artist, Cynthia Minet. She has since moved on to another college, but many years ago her treatment of some of my photographs became the cover of my second book, The Xopilote Cantos. For my book about the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Costa Rica, she combined a roadside cross, vultures in a tree, and water from a swamp. (The word xopilote means "vulture" and came into Spanish from New World Indian languages.) Her blended cover image came out like this:

We may think of photoshop manipulations as a recent thing, but the art show in Washington D.C. proves that we have been messing around with photos ever since it was invented and popularized in the 1830s. From the very start of photography, subtle and not-so-subtle combinations, enhancements, and outright falsehoods accumulated.

Here is a very fun shot, from the back cover of the exhibit catalog:

That is still a popular composition. Look at this variation, from an article on Taylor Swift (26 million albums sold, if I remember correctly) from the current issue of Vanity Fair. It shows the men who have been rumored to be romantically involved with her.

Using InDesign and similar programs, these days that's not so hard to do, but look again at the original model, the wheel of men on a rooftop overlooking Philadelphia. In a pre-"green screen" age, to manipulate the physical negatives took a considerable amount of skill, and one thing the show and catalog convince us of is just how good the former generation of dark room technicians really were. The problem then as now is less a matter of making a wheel of executives balance on some poor schmuck's shoulders than the fact that the eye sees the world one way, and the camera, another.

Take this example, from Language Arts. Once a week or so, I rotate a photo of a different faculty member into a display case in LS1, along with their note about what they have been reading lately.

Here is the current person being celebrated, Dr. Rachel Jennings, who teaches English.

She was just stepping out of a meeting when I asked her to turn and look back into the room and I took her picture, and if she looks like she is trying to smile when in actuality she feels ill, that's because I later learned that was just what was happening. I didn't catch her on her best day, apparently. Cooperative sort that she is, she gave me the best smile that circumstances allowed.

Yet what I "saw" at the time was "her," that is, a human figure. My eyes know to "de-select" the over-lit grassy background behind her as irrelevant, and know, too, how to process wild variations in light. With normal human vision, I can "see" a figure in a doorway, back lit by the sun. Yet the camera struggles with this. The range from light to dark is too great. She's dark, the background is light, so what to do? The average digital camera has a narrower dynamic range than the eye-mind combo has, so the camera wants me to shoot with a flash or else reposition her, so that the scalding noon sun bleaching out the grass does not blow out the background, as it does here. She is exposed well but the background is over-exposed, making this a bad photograph.

The thing about this shot is, I did indeed mess up, but not for the reasons just listed. It's not that the tonal range is too large, it's that the tonal range is too large for my home photo printer. For the weekly "what I have been reading" series, it starts with a photo that I print at home and bring in for the display case. Fine, but there's a calibration issue between my Mac computer and my Epson printer, and if I ask the printer to take a shot like this "as is," the machine goes on strike. It does NOT want to print both Rachel plus still print the blown-out background, and in fact, rather than let the background go white, it has some kind of internal printer hissy fit, and so it then it puddles black ink on the too-light background, ruining the print.

So rather than reschedule a new shoot, usually what I do is trick the printer into cooperating. It doesn't care what the background is, it just wants mid-tones. So I cut and paste some of those from elsewhere in the image and scribble the background in that way, just enough to get the shot to print Rachel and some kind of generic background blur without puddles of La Brea Tar Pit blackness.

Here's the "quick and dirty" re-edit, as it appeared in the Language Arts weekly news case. Rachel Jennings is the same, but the white of the first background now is a blurry green mid-toned mess. It has no art or realism behind it, but at least it will print and let me get on with updating the display.

I make no pretense that this edit is at all well done, since it is not. (I didn't "photoshop it," I used a thing called "Aperture," and I am not good about how to use it to burn and dodge, to use the correct terms for what I needed to do. In a proper Photoshop class, I assume my changed background would be about a D-, it is so clumsy.)

For the glass display case, this change is fine; I won't use the changed shot when I build the Language Arts website, and I would not use it for any kind of journalism or "factual" reporting. You will not see this submitted to the Antelope Valley Press. I just had to get Rachel's face up, so I could run her piece. By the way, since we're on the topic, here is her statement about what she has been reading.

When I had a cold recently, a friend said I should rub tea tree oil on my feet. She said it would help, but was unable to explain why. Alternative medicine sounds attractive, but does it work? In Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine, Simon Singh and Edward Ernst seek to answer this important question.

Motivated by the cost to our pockets ($60 billion a year worldwide) and to our health, the authors examine the research on more than thirty treatments and conclude that we have fallen prey to quackery to an alarming degree.

In a chapter on herbal medicine, they argue that, before taking a herb, we need to ask whether there’s any proof it works, whether it’s had conventional drugs added to it (to make it appear to work), what the side effects are, how it interacts with other drugs, whether it involves endangered species, and what the opportunity cost will be if we shun conventional medicine. The book is a reminder that with medicine, as with the rest of our lives, we need to use our critical thinking skills and not be mystified by marketing.

So to come back to our matter at hand (and hopefully not get waylaid by any shyster health cures along the way), let's just wrap up the common reasons images were manipulated in the past.

One was to make a postcard, the loss of which from American lives has been dealt with previously in this space.

Lenses were such and the kind of film available was such that to make a photograph "work" on a postcard, often the sky had to be filled in or humans imported from other, less active, versions. The photographers of your didn't have access to equipment that would give the tonal range that landscape paintings had lead viewers to expect, so these photographers and their retouching editors built up a composite view, one unit at a time.

I don't think they would have seen this as falsifying history so much just as getting the scene to be legible in a postcard as it was to our eyesight.

Another layering technique was to create whimsical scenes intended as satire, not representations of natural reality. Here is a World War I-era shot whose general joke transcends era and language.

I for one admire this very much --- just don't ask me how it was done! There is a very "sure" hand at work here, one that can create backgrounds and blend scale utterly seamlessly.

Photography has been doing this ever since it started. With the arrival of the concept of the penny postcard, visual puns and tongue in cheek exaggerations found a ready outlet in vernacular photography. These are all early examples here, but in my own lifetime, variations on a trout as big as a pack horse or an ear of corn so big it needs its own flatcar were still sold at drugstores through the American West. I miss them, I have to confess. I never thought they would disappear, or else I would have hoarded them along the way. See examples below; maybe we can refer to this as the "Jackalope" school of image making.

Some photo manipulation was more sinister. This shot of Lenin and Stalin has been heavily retouched, yet more or less represents authentic history. Later, Stalin in the purges would take photo manipulation down a darker path.

In this group of five people, there is a very grim history. One by one, as Stalin had people rubbed out, he also erased their visual memory. In the last photo below, only one man remains next to Stalin. It's not that he was the last lucky man to survive, since by then, he too had been executed. It's just that Stalin decided to leave him in an image, for propaganda purposes. In those Soviet times, the photo retoucher took away people whose lives already had been forfeited to Stalin's evil suspicions. Everybody knew the unspoken implication: do a good job in the darkroom, or you will be next.

The thing is, all photographs bend reality one way or another. That's what a lens does. Here is a shot from the Galapagos, via a British art magazine that I subscribe to.

This marine iguana tail in a cloud-reflecting tide pool together make a stunning shot, and in its intended final version (as a large-scale art print in a museum exhibition), I am sure it has a very striking impact. Yet let's be honest about all of the steps involved here.

---Photographer (Mr. Salgado, in this case).
---Photographer's eyesight (good or bad, limited or enhanced by polarizing sunglasses, etc).
---Photographer's camera and lens set-up (in this case, I believe he was shooting a full-frame Canon digital SLR, and Canon cameras have their own conversion algorithms: they "see" differently than would a Nikon in the same situation, or an older model Polaroid).
---Photographer's studio computer once he gets back from the Galapagos, and the software installed on it (in his case, I would assume he uses Mac and is running Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom, and that he has a crew of paid assistants to do the work).
---The image after it has been edited and pushed and cropped and dodged and burned in Photoshop (this iguana image is not straight "out of the camera"; it has been post-processed).
---The processed image after it has been converted to black and white format (maybe done in Photoshop, but there are after-market programs too; this may have processed in such a way as to quote, visually, old Tri-X film).
---The processed and now black and white image after it has been fed into a different computer and turned into a high resolution, large format film negative.
---The film negative after it has been used to produce a museum-quality print.
---The print after it has been matted, framed, put behind museum-quality glass, hung on the wall, and lit (to light and hang an exhibition well takes many days).
---The print on the wall in relation to the other images, left and right; it will read different if next to a dead child killed by a tsunami, or if sequenced in between underwater shots, or if we know that an errant polar bear is lurking nearby, gobbling up napping iguanas.
---But of course we are not seeing the wall print, we are seeing a digital version of the wall print reduced down (and probably cropped) for printing on a magazine cover, a magazine whose tonal range in print options may not match the photographer's goals.
---But of course we are not seeing the magazine, either, but rather my scan of the magazine.
---But of course we are not seeing my scan of the magazine, but rather a version of my scan that has been digitized and loaded onto the AVC blog, and which on your computer might look very different from how I intended it to look, which is potentially different still from Salgado's intentions.

In any case, we are many mediated layers away from the original lizard in the original volcanic tide pool in the ocean off the coast of Ecuador. How Uncle Joe Stalin felt about marine iguanas history does not report. He probably would have been distrustful, as he was of most everything else. "Death to the strange and the marvelous" was his motto. 

Some things we might suspect can't be photographed. What about the energy and motion that Jackson Pollock wanted to capture in his art?

Of course, he used titles like "autumnal rhythms," and so a recent shot of mine (a snowy tree in Boston, lit by streetlamps) seems to me to have a similar range of lines and color form. Not exactly the same, but close, perhaps?

And of course, these are not the trees, these are just the digital versions of the trees ... you get the point. When it comes to photography, the camera never lies. Yet when it comes to photography, the camera always lies. Or at least there is a lot of room for fiction and interpretation, in between the object, the lens, the photoshopped corrections and croppings, and the final delivery to your computer or to the museum wall. It's all fiction then, even the most deadpan and "straight" documentary photograph --- it's all fiction, and long may the fictions reign.


The AVC campus blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and does not represent the official views of the Board of Trustees or the administration of Antelope Valley College. All views about jackalopes, photo doctoring, or snowy trees in Boston are his alone. Hood may be reached at