Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Caption is Worth a Thousand Words

The New York Times has published a number of interesting items about Photoshop this month

In "Photography as a Weapon," documentary filmmaker Errol Morris speaks with image manipulation researchers and bloggers who public editorial images and includes interviews with Hany Farid and Charles Johnson. He follows the lineage of current "fauxtography" back to Germany's John Heartfield and the photomontage work that he produced during the Weimar and Nazi years. Morris actually argues that the problem has more to do with public perception than it does with digital manipulation.

But doctored photographs are the least of our worries. If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.

The Times also ran a piece called "I Was There. Just Ask Photoshop" that examines how the software program is altering the record of family history for many individuals who are excising divorced spouses or including absent relatives in snapshots in the family album or on the mantelpiece.

Although the initial tone of the piece seems to chide this behavior, the reporter also includes the opinion of at least one cultural historian who suggests that this is less of an aberration than it might seem.

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.”

Thanks to my HCC colleague Peter Moore for the Morris story.

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