Summer 1995

This is not a plane crash [extract]

We already know the camera can lie. Now digital technology has broken the photograph’s link to a moment in time, will we ever be able to trust photography again?

The recent influx of digital technology and photo-manipulation software into the realm of photography is raising fundamental questions about the nature of photographic truth. These developments require us to reconsider the ways in which photographs influence our perception of reality, the functioning of memory and our trust in historical records. Only then will we be begin to understand the implications of the new technology for the future of photography and for graphic designers in their capacity as image-manipulators.

Until recently photography was an entirely physical process. But in the last few years a hybrid technology - part analogue, part digital - has emerged whereby existing negatives, transparencies and prints can be scanned and digitised for use with image-manipulation software such as Photoshop. Once processed, the digital image can be transformed back into a hard copy in the form of a thermal photographic print, colour transparency or colour separations for printing. Digital technology has also had an effect on the storage of photographic images - for instance, Kodak’s Photo - CD allows the digital storage, cataloguing and rapid retrieval of vast numbers of images on high resolution rewritable disks.

The arrival of the first digital cameras, which will eventually supersede the half-way technology of digital ‘backs’ for standard cameras, signals a shift towards digital image orientation. With digital cameras, the image is captured instantly and reconstructed as pure, non-tangible binary information: the visual enters the realm of the non-visual. This image-information is either stored internally and downloaded directly onto the computer, as with Apple’s low-cost QuickTake 100 camera, or stored on removable cards, as with the new Kodak DCS 460 digital camera.

Unlike other forms of visualisation such as painting, the photograph is not an imitation or an interpretation, but as Susan Sontag notes in ‘On Photography, ‘a trace, something stenciled directly off the real’. If reality can be defined as something that happened, then the photograph, in fixing that as a static visual trace, is proof that it did indeed occur. The arrival of photography made the past easier to access and relate to - more tangible - than the previous reliance on memory, oral history and written documentation. Before the digital era, photography functioned as an authenticator whose believability transcended other forms of ‘factual’ representation such as painting or writing.

Yet the photograph functions not only as a means through which we can record the present and rediscover the past, but as a substitute for memory. A recent television commercial for Kodak’s Kodacolor Gold film plays on this aspect. It begins with a typical holiday scene - children on a beach. As they run towards us, the image freezes with the sound of the camera’s shutter-release and the colour drains from the picture. An over-saturated Kodacolor Gold print appears at the top of the screen, leaving the original ‘real’ image - the memory - grey and lifeless. Memory is seen as mere simulation and the photograph becomes its replacement. A Kodacolor print, we are encouraged to believe, is the memory.

It is the measure of the degree to which we now trust the photograph as a representation of reality that we so rarely view it in its first-generation state as a transparency or print. Even when photographic images are shown on television they still exercise the same authority; televisual reproduction serves, if anything, to reinforce their authenticity. It is as though the photograph’s ‘transparency’, the way it seems to offer direct access to the real, has allowed it to transcend previous notions of touch as a physical confirmation of reality.

Television commercials take such developments *for granted. In a recent campaign for Fuji’s Fujicolor film the commercials focus on various illusions, revealing large Fujicolor photographic prints ‘blended’ seamless into real scenes. The commentary toys with our preconceptions: ‘What is reality?’, ‘Can a photo really be this good?’, ‘So real, it’s unreal’. Rather than merely advertising the quality of the film, the commercials question assumptions about the differences between reality and representation.

The photograph records a precise instance in time; its physical nature - the celluloid base of the negative - provides an original, a standard of reality. In the case of a digital image, light traces are turned into numbers and stored as binary I/0, yes/no responses at the point of capture. The digital image is therefore extracted from any relationship with the instant it describes, and whether stored on a disk or displayed on screen, is unnervingly intangible. The photograph has entered a fluid world of stimulation and manipulation not so different in essence from representational painting, the very discipline its arrival was supposed to kill off.

The result is that photographers are now potentially freed from the constraints of being mere ‘recorders of reality’. But is the capacity to manipulate the photographic image really so new? In a discussion in the Daily Telegraph Magazine, the Spanish-born photojournalist Pedro Meyer describes his conversion to the world of ‘post-photography’, but stresses that photography has always been open to manipulation: ‘Documentary photography as we have known it is a fiction. The photograph as an objective representation of reality simply does not exist.’ He goes on to argue that elements of apparently factual photography have always been manipulated, citing as an example the way US news photographers during the Contra war in Nicaragua would carefully pose soldiers to achieve the images their picture editors required. And even after the photograph has been taken, it can be cropped misleadingly or recontextualised by placement in a sequence or by loaded captioning.

But while Meyer believes that image-manipulation software has given him the same kind of freedom as a writer or a poet, the status of the photograph as a faithful representation of reality remains relatively unchallenged, especially in media where viewers expect to believe all they see. This has disturbing implications for the potential abuse of their trust in the near future.

Since the birth of photography, the photograph has been our main window on the past. But new technology puts its reliability as a historical document under threat. In the picture libraries of the world, a digital representation of our planet is gradually taking shape. Millions of new digital images are being logged directly into this dataspace, as well as existing hard copy images. Increasingly we will encounter these images through the screen and this has important implications for the way we perceive them. Screen-based access encourages the idea that photographic images of events of which the viewer has had no direct experience are mere visual information and fair game for recontextualised use.

It is a simple matter to scan in old photographs. But to digitise a photographic image, even without going on to manipulate it, is to serve it from its once secure link, through the negative, with a moment in time. Digital manipulation is open to the same danger as historical writing in its tendency to project contemporary attitudes on to the past. In time, the arrival of total simulation will make it possible to construct seamless, entirely believable ‘photographic’ re-creations of historical events.

Photojournalism is another area for concern. The photograph reinterpreted as malleable ‘information’ has already been taken to disturbing extremes by some newspapers. Fred Ritchin, in his essay ‘The end of photography as we have known it’, cites a recent case in which a European newspaper unable to get its photographer to the scene of a plane crash published on its front page a computer-manipulated montage from eye-witness accounts. Passed off by newspapers as ‘genuine’ press photographs, such images are published under false pretences. A code of practice is clearly needed, though it will be difficult to apply.

Ease of manipulation could even affect the photographs that record our domestic lives. With the aid of new multimedia systems, it will soon be commonplace for people to modify their snapshots by deleting figures, changing facial expressions or combining occasions in an idealised composite. The past as we experience it will be digitally reconstructed as a sequence of malleable fictions.

In addition to the more obvious abuses, smaller, subtler forms of manipulation are being applied to countless photographs every day. Each decision by a graphic designer to ‘Photoshop it’ potentially contributes to the phenomenon. Once our alteration of images begins to arouse suspicion, then the loss of trust in the photograph as a reliable historical document could threaten the perceived validity of all the images in our image banks.

The doubtful future of one of Britain’s most important collections, the 250,000 photographs held in the Central Office of Information, has recently been debated. Filing is virtually non-existent in this vital visual record of British life, and it is feared that the material is already deteriorating. This highlights the need for reliable digital storage of documentary photographs, but at the same time indicates that the over-efficient archiving of images in this way has its downside. Orthodox photographic materials such as silver-halide celluloid and paper have a short life, and this, coupled with their physical bulk, allows for a natural editing process of deterioration and loss. Our capacity to store reliably vast amounts of imagery on digital disks will surely result in an over-proliferation of images and, where their authenticity is suspect, multiply the risk of image pollution and misinformation.

Just as notions of vision, perception and reality have changed thanks to photography, so might this new technology demand that we reconsider what we understand to be ‘real’. Digital archiving can be seen as an extension of photograph’s ability to ‘free’ our memories. But if it is accompanied by a loss of trust in the photographic image, it may, paradoxically, place the emphasis back on memory for the recall of past experiences. The dissolution of trust in the photographic image could even cause us to abandon photography. What would happen if we simply stopped taking photographs?

The further development and dissemination of image-manipulation technology and the emergence of total simulation may inadvertently precipitate a return to a pre-photographic era. One unexpected result of the digital cultural revolution could be a renewed emphasis on subjective writing and painting and on the new interpretative ‘neo-painting’ of digitally manipulated photography. In ways that we could never have predicted, digital technology is in the process of undermining the validity of photography and changing definitively the ways we experience reality and relate to the past.

First published in Eye no. 17 vol. 5, 1995