Wednesday, May 18, 2016


I had a thought today. Mike, over on ToP, has been going on a bit about digital editing, how much is too much, and so on, spurred by the McCurry scandal. In a forum, I saw a fellow dismiss the McCurry thing with, roughly, "what message, exactly, is being distorted by McCurry's edits?"

Here's the message that's distorted. It's the same message ever photograph carries. Ready for it?

This is what it looked like

Fundamentally, that's all a photograph ever really says.

One has to take this sort of allegorically, of course. As noted by many others it wasn't that small, nor was it flat, and there was more of it outside the rectangle, and the color was different etc etc. For each viewer specifically, any given picture either will or will not pass a basic "that's pretty much what it looked like" test. Generally, most people will agree, roughly. There are going to be some pictures that we disagree on, but most things most people will line up on the same side.

Removing a dude from a motor scooter definitely will make most people line up on the "didn't look like that"

McCurry is, of course, presenting a bullshit notion of certain areas of the world. They're austere, beautiful, somewhat gloomy, and have more contrast than we experience in the USA, possibly because the Sun is much much closer to India than it is to Chicago. He deletes smiling people, he deletes extra people, and so on.

It didn't look like, it doesn't look like that. Not in an individual picture, and not as a body of work.

Ok, whatever, so what. It's Art! Furthermore, everyone assumes that everything in Photoshopped these days, don't they?

Here's the really important observation I made.

People view paintings in a certain way. The understand that paintings are not literal, that it is normal for a painting to fail the "did it look like that" test. A painting is, in it very essence, not literally true to the scene. It's built in.

People, today, view photographs similarly, they assume that photographs are not in general literally true. The distinction is this: this default assumption is that most photographs are false, that they are lies. This is partly, I think, due to the fact that historically photographs have been edited heavily to reinforce larger political lies. It is also partly because photographs, as I say over and over, are essentially rooted in a kind of literal truth to the scene.

So, people see paintings and accept without rancor that they're probably not true to the scene. They see photographs and arrive at the same conclusion, but they describe it as a lie, a fake, a falsehood.

Universal acceptance of the basic un-literalness of photographs does not place photography into the same mental box we place painting. It almost does, but not quite. It places photography as a whole into a mental box labelled "probably fake, not literal" whereas paintings just get filed under "probably not literal."

It's a subtle distinction, I guess. But I think it matters.


  1. If what you propose is true -- that people everywhere automatically believe every photo they see has been manipulated in some way -- then why do so many of them continue to ask me if the photos of mine I show them have been Photoshopped?

    Instead, I have come to believe that people instinctively believe the photos they see are literal; that what they see in two dimensions was, in fact, actually in front of the camera in three dimensions at the moment when the shutter was tripped.

    But only for a split second, until their conscious brains step in and take over from their lizard brains, reminding them that they've been fooled many, many times before and these past experiences cause them to temper their present reactions accordingly.

    Sort of like my dog believes that I really am going to throw her ball this time and not just pretend to throw it and then hide it from her.

    Or that Charlie Brown believes Lucy really is going to hold the football for him to kick it.

    This, I think, is why so many people react so negatively when they let their guard down for the Steve McCurrys of the world, only to later discover that, contrary to The Who's warning, they did indeed allow themselves to "get fooled again."

    It's no wonder that Roger Daltrey screams out so loudly at the end of that song!

    1. Yes, I probably overreached.

      What is probably true is that most people are suspicious, are aware of the possibility that a picture may be "Photoshopped", especially if it's really good or contains anything remarkable. The question is present in their minds.

      But the main point remains, that the question in their mind is phrased as "is this one 'faked'?"

  2. "This is what it looked like. Fundamentally, that's all a photograph ever really says."

    But take a look at this:

    This was taken with a slow shutter speed - it is a lie because the eye saw a clear, not-blurred image?
    Just for the sake of conversation, of course...

    1. Well, that's a good question, isn't it?

      Ultimately, the camera doesn't work at all the same way the eye does. It's not even close. So, there's a translation process of sorts. Lots of photographers have tried out lots of things to, in essence, simulate in a photograph the way the eye and brain perceive the world.

      The trope of motion blur, whether a biologically accurate simulation, or just a culturally accepted technique, strikes us (often) as "true", I think.

      Truth, in this context, really is about "perceived truth", not literal. Does a motion blurred car pass the "it really looked like that" test? I bet it depends. We certainly agree that it accurately represents an F1 car going by 10 feet away. Does it accurately represent a car passing by at 30 kilometers per hour? A horse ambling by?

      At some point, the method falls apart into perceived falsehood. A motion-blurred snail is a visual joke, not a truthful photograph, and the joke is specifically "it did not look like that".

      Great example! Good food for thought.