Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Photographs and Reality II

This is a followon to the previous remarks.

In the past we had a situation in which the reality of a photograph was assumed. If it looked real, the assumption was "it looked pretty much like that", that's pretty much what most people thought when they saw the picture. This is why a photo of a little girl running down a road, naked and on fire, had such an impact on the Vietnam war. A painting of that same scene, a drawing, a verbal description, would have had far less impact simply because the viewer would automatically assume that it could never have really looked like that. That's utter madness, nothing is that terrible. And yet, it was just that terrible, the child's terror and pain was just that great.

There is a reason that the US military is controlling the photographic narrative from their current wars so tightly. They'd really prefer not to have their lovely lovely wars messed with, thankyouverymuch, and they have learned some painful lessons in what happens when you let accurate visual depictions of war escape into the public eye.

That was then, this is now.

As I suggest in my previous remarks, this is in flux. We're awash in unreal photorealistic imagery. The younger generation, I suspect, does not have the default assumption of truth. Confronted with a contemporary version of the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, they're as likely to assume a photochop, or a staged photo, as anything else. Confronted with the photo of Nguyễn Văn Lém being executed, they would likely ask what movie it's from.

A very very small, but real, aspect of this cultural shift is the laissez faire attitude of contemporary amateur photographers toward alterations. They merrily clone out inconvenient telephone wires, trees, they move things around, because of Art, or because they want the thing on a 1/3 line, or because they can, or because the want "to capture the way the feeeeeel" or whatever. If you're 'shopping the hell out of your pictures, you're not evil. You're not even doing an evil thing.

What you are doing is taking part in a cultural shift, you're a tiny cog in an inevitable evolution of the photograph away from something important and truthful, to being, perhaps, what photographers have feared all along, merely a grubby stepchild of painting and drawing. A sort of easy etching method for the untalented.

The unstated but neverthless real social contract: "What you see was really there" has been broken. With that lost, what has photography to make itself worthy?

Emerson was, ultimately, right. Bashing away to fix and improve a photograph does, ultimately, lead to photographs which are just shabby paintings.

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