Sunday, June 7, 2009

More on digital photography and reader "empowerment"

I was thinking more about Martin Earl's recent post on Harriet.

I remembered something he said that ends up being pretty ironic to his point, not sure why I didn't catch it when I read it (he's talking here about the effects of digital photography on the photography medium:
Instead of doing the work of making an image, we could “capture” hundreds and pick the “one” we wanted, deleting the rest. And that one image (the result an aleatory process) could then be altered in Photoshop to suit our inner vision of the outer world: change the sky, add clouds, ramp up the saturation, remove the undesirables, like airbrushing away an apparatchik fallen from grace.
Of course the argument here is that digital photography has made us more lazy and less thoughtful. He's arguing that analog photography "empowered" us more than digital photography (rather than the opposite, which is supposedly the general assumption). However, that airbrushing-an-apparatchik-fallen-from-grace-bit (remember this statement is in the context of Photoshop) got me thinking about a great reason why he's wrong. It's a reference to the Soviet's practice of "erasing" party members that they no longer wanted people to remember, going so far as to remove them from all photographs that they may have appeared in.

What's so lovely about this reference is that this all took place before digital photography, and before Photoshop. In trying to make his point, Earl reminds us of why he's wrong. The digital revolution was not the dawn of photo-manipulation. There's all kinds of little things you can do to falsify even analog photography.

However, what the digital revolution did bring us was this: no government can actually get away with that shit anymore (not that they won't try). The reason being that we all have access to photo-manipulation software, and a pretty large amount of people understand how it works, and what to look for in a fake. Or, even if you can't spot a 'shopped photo, we're so saturated with manipulated photos, we never take a picture at face value anymore. Especially if it seems amazing or revealing of something.

Because of digital photography and photoshop, we understand how simple it is to fool the viewer. So we approach images with a healthy amount of skepticism. That same amount of skepticism would have been just as healthy in the days of analog photography, but we were so mesmerized by what we thought the technology was doing we didn't realize how we were being fooled.

So once again, Earl is wrong when he argues that digital photography makes us less aware of how the technology works. Rather, because we're free from having to understand as many of the mechanics that go into making a camera work, we're more able to understand other very real effects of photography that we were previously less aware of.

As a sort-of-aside, this is all sort of the same reason that Wikipedia is better than other encyclopedias. No, not because it's more accurate (which it generally is, by the way), but because it creates the correct amount of skepticism that one should have when approaching any text. When reading a Wikipedia article, one generally thinks "well, this seems helpful, but didn't just some asshole somewhere write this?" This is exactly the approach one should have to Encyclopedia Britannica. Why should we care about experts? Shouldn't we care more about cited sources? Wikipedia fits more with the model of what an encyclopedia is supposed to be.

Wikipedia may, in the end, be a better example of reader empowerment than "Language" poetry. However, let's say "Language" poetry failed, which actually I think is a stupid thing to say, and not because I think it was "successful" either, but whatever, say it failed. That's no argument against the need to empower readers. I mean, for fuck's sake, did Earl really say this?:
Empowerment ran against the two thousand three hundred year old notion, first formulated by Aristotle in his Poetics, of catharsis.
Really? We can't empower people, because it's a western tradition to not empower people?

3 comments:

The Smack Daddy said...

Previous to reading your post, I spent nearly a half hour looking at the "Photoshop Arms onto Birds" thread, and have been unable to formulate any profound or confident thoughts since.
That fact alone is enough to secure the sanctity of the digital age in my mind...I think...

Iain said...

I saw that shit too after I made the post, and strongly considered going back and weaving it in somehow.

grace said...

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