Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Photo manipulation

I'm sure this entire discussion may be old hat to many folks, but I found the Errol Morris blog discussion of photographic manipulation terrific, the sort of thing worth assigning to a class and thought-provoking in its own right. One sentence that stuck out for me:
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.
In some ways, this is a restatement - in another medium - of the central problematic of documentary meaning, namely that actuality footage carries very little of its own meaning but instead relies on montage and the soundtrack to supplement the "pure plenitude" of indexical representation. 

The interview-discussion also touches on the problem of lossy images. Morris asserts that lossiness is the guarantor of authenticity, citing the reality effect of low-resolution documentary and pseudodocumentary filmmaking. However, I'd suggest there's a perceptual difference between low-resolution and lossiness. If we as viewers (and I know I'm being impressionistic here) feel the image failed to capture fully the profilmic (because of distance, obstruction, atmospheric conditions, film stock, etc.), we have a different disposition to the "photographic truth" than if we feel that captured information has been compressed out. This may be a generational difference, though, and certainly digital aesthetics can fetishize the apparatus as much as analog counterparts. But I'd like to suggest that we read the cues of low-res and compression loss differently.

One thing that Morris does not discuss is the political economy of the news industry, which has to be changing its understanding its ability to know photographic provenance.

2 comments:

symbot said...

Among the informed, noise and data loss will certainly be read differently than compression. In photography, I read the noise and filmic interference as marks of authenticity, just as Morris suggested... they suggest the need to adapt the apparatus to the conditions, or at the very least, they suggest a sentimental attachment to some sort of technical limitation.

When I see significant data loss from compression, such as you might find in a JPEG, or worse, in a photograph saved as a GIF, I read it as laziness. I generally assume that somebody did a bad job in their technical decision-making, and that their conversion is responsible for what I probably perceive as a poor experience for me.

However, this might indeed have something to do with generation and fetishization. Perhaps, back when we didn't adore "retro" cameras and feel nostalgic about film stock, the photographers saw those old imperfections as mere laziness, as well. Theorists have pointed out that you can't fully appreciate a medium for its unique strengths and weaknesses until after it's been superceded... I think seeing noise and analog data loss as "authenticity" is part of our nostalgia for an old medium, and for the weaknesses that we no longer have to worry about accounting for.

Stefano said...

As Morris asserts "lossiness is the guarantor of authenticity", the nodal point of this issue is not the technical aspect (JPEG or GIF) itself, but the concept of footage (or found footage) and its real worsening vs fake recreation. It is always the same question: Can a a lossy picture (in this case)guarantee the "truth"?