"La Realidad" in the year 2000
© Pedro Meyer 2000
by Pedro Meyer
The Zapatista movement in Chiapas invented a place in the jungle that went by the name of "La Realidad" (Reality), located in the southern part of Mexico. It became a geographic rallying point from which to launch many of their political communiqués. The Internet helped to bring much of the world's attention to what transpired in those parts no one was paying attention to. Although the place hardly existed, the fact is that La Realidad became a reality through repetition and the clever use of all media.
Around that same time, faced by the onslaught of digital barbarians who were willing to engage in what was considered a most despicable of practices -manipulating images of reality in their computers- photographers, editors and not few critics, started to rally around the notion that the "reality of the image" and thus photography had to be saved from any digital assault. The representation of "Reality" (with a capital R) had to be defended at all costs.
Documentary photographers were for the most part at the center core of those arguing against all forms of digital representation. It was considered in some quarters as the root of all evil, which eventually would erode the credibility of the photographic image.
Symposia and panel discussions were organized with photographers, editors and publishers of major publications, who would try to shame each other into acceptance as to what constituted an acceptable practice and what was not. (It is fascinating to observe how fast all the trappings of an inquisitorial practice can be erected.) It was determined for instance that images had to be labeled clearly to separate those that had suffered an alteration from those that were "pure" i.e. not modified (whatever that meant).
Since I produced one of the earliest bodies of digital work, and I did not particularly care to have any "Inquisition" pass judgment on my integrity, I devised a solution that offered two dates for all those images which had been altered by me in the computer. The day when the basic image was taken (on film at the time) and when the image had subsequently been altered in the computer. Thus, you had a guide if something had been altered in the computer by observing if I offered two dates or solely one. People would actually go around my exhibitions trying to guess if something had been done to the picture or not, and then looking at the dates.
In order to avoid any sort of manipulation with the photographic image, codes of "ethics" were drawn up using arguments based themselves on every sort of manipulation using words and ideas in very questionable ways.
The central distortion was that all the other media (written word, audio, video) were considered apparently less prone to the dangers of manipulation than those posed by photography. To extract a few minutes from an hour of audiotape or from a video interview was seen as a legitimate activity by such journalists. However if a photographer took an equivalent action, for instance that of deleting a pack of cigarettes or a telephone pole from a picture, he or she had incurred in a major sin. Never mind that by framing a picture differently at the time of making it, one could obviate the unfortunate telephone pole, without being taken to task for manipulating the representation of reality. After all a photograph had always been a proof of reality, was it not? Now it turns out The New York Times, in a very interesting article of January 13th, has just denounced CBS and their news program for inserting their own CBS logo on top of the NBC one that appears in real life in Times Sq. They did so during a live transmission at the time of the New Year celebrations in New York. The fact is that the genie of altering reality has been brought out of the bottle and nothing, I believe, will make it possible to be returned again to whence it came from, regardless if this applies to still or motion pictures.
To tamper with a photograph, something that is understood in most cultures as "proof of reality", is a such profound issue, that in order to deal with the ensuing problems of manipulation, these have been placed in the context of a major moral problem. In the case of photography, some have gone as far as suggesting that digital images no longer qualify for the term of being a photograph. One thus was expelled from society and declared a non-photographer. We have been told: "Thou shall not alter a photograph", and if you do, you have to place corresponding warning labels all over the neighborhood, informing of such a transgression. If you read the comments by Dan Rather from CBS, this is just what he stated concerning their own transgression in the video.
The double standards being used seemed not to bother anyone. You could manipulate anything you wanted, without it becoming a cardinal sin, as long as this happened before the legendary click. No problem in using makeup, and all sorts of cosmetics to embellish the color and tone of the skin, but if you dared to correct something once the picture had been shot you ought to make all kinds of acknowledgments that "reality" had been tampered with.
Yes you can use any filter you like, as long as these are optical and in front of the lens, but be aware that once the picture has been taken this same effort is called manipulation. Feel free to choose the film of your choice to enhance the visual interpretation of the image, but consider yourself damned if you decide upon such an alteration in a post click position using the computer.
The problem with the accusations by The New York Times, or the Dan Rather mea culpa, or the excuses presented by CBS, is that while they make all this fuss about the logo being there or not, nothing is ever discussed about the real manipulation of news behind the scenes by these institutions. It is a charade to engage with the alteration of such logos when in fact there has been ample evidence about all those news organizations' complicity with altering facts for the benefit of whatever was expedient at the time either politically or financially. Suppressing certain news is as much about manipulation of reality as sticking a logo where there was none.
25 years ago, I made the following image with the man resting under
his three hats. The obvious distortion of the column shooting off towards
the left was the by-product of using a wide-angle lens on a 35-mm camera.
I have always had a preference for wide angel lenses; they somehow bring
you in closer, but they also distort reality. Do they ever! (Can you
imagine if the world would really be like those wide angle lenses depicted
reality, the instability of all those buildings with constructions that
are always at odd angles?).
that I have the computer to work with, I took another look at that image,
and fixed the distorted column. Today the question would be, for all
those who shout foul at the very thought of using the computer to alter
photographs, which "reality" is a more accurate representation
of that which was. The one where the column is at an angle, or the one
where it is now straight. Never mind that the picture is in black and
white, which oddly enough is not a problem for photography purists.
Like if the world is actually devoid of colors.
Again, as in other examples stated earlier, if the adjustment had been done "in camera" with a bellows adjustment on a 4 x 5, all would be acceptable; if done with the aid of the computer after the fact, everyone seems to be up in arms. I am sure you get the point about how we need to move forward and forget all this nonsense about the manipulation of digital photographs. Face it, all photographs are and have been nothing else but the product of manipulating reality. They are simply interpretations by the photographers who made those pictures.
As we are faced by a new millennium, to those who question the term of photography when applied to digital imagery, let me just remind you that photography means writing with light. It does not demand that such "writing with light" be accomplished through chemical means or electronic ones, we are fortunately left to pursue our own choices. As I see it, irrespective of which process we use, they are all photographs as long as they include the magic word: light.
beauty of light as the sun sets was best described by my four year old
son, when the other afternoon as we visited a friend, he was so enthralled
by the colors in the sky that he declared to his mother and me, "
I want to marry the sky".
suspect that if we responded to reality with such an open mind ( that
of considering marrying the sky) and allowed the emotion of light to
become part of our awareness, we would appreciate the irrelevance of
the present debate, as long as the image conveyed the message we wanted.
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"One out of five cameras
sold for more than $50 in October was a digital model, not film - -
and of the 43 percent of Web users who plan to purchases a new camera
in the next six months, 72 percent want a digital one...only seven percent
of cameras sold were digital in 1998." -