Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009

After Images

By David Luhrssen
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Long ago someone famously said, “The camera never lies.” He must not have been referring to the movies, which from early on became associated with the sort of illusion once confined to magic tricks and darkened circus tents. And he must not have been aware that still photographs could be manipulated, if laboriously, in the dark room. Proven: at least some of the “spirit photographs” of the 19th century were faked. And Stalin notoriously used photographs to rewrite history by brushing out Trotsky and other disgraced rivals from group shots.

In the digital age, the manipulation of imagery is only a mouse click away. From this basis, New York University professor Fred Ritchin argues in After Photography (published by W.W. Norton) that the collapse of “realism” in digital photography mirrors a quantum view of reality, where nothing is solid and everything is a matter of probability. Perhaps so, but physicists acknowledge that there is a space in which reality obtains solidity—the every day dimension between molecules and galaxies where most of us live and work.

Creating illusionary or artificial realms is easier than ever and Ritchin largely overlooks the downside of a world where everything can be falsified or fictionalized. To his credit, he acknowledges some dissenting views. Among them, filmmaker Wim Wenders on the proliferation of digitalized images: “Soon, they will really end up making us blind.”

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