Once upon a time in the 90s I used to collect hockey cards. The brand we were into at the time was Topps, but in the game of one-upmanship that is retail, an upstart card company called The Upper Deck came out with better designed card stock photographs. They were glossier, and while they didn’t come with flavorless dried up gum, you’d find a hologram card in the odd pack. The first holograms seemed to be nothing more than proof of concept as they had no identifying text on the front and no statistics on the back. They were simply pictures. Cool pictures. Here we were and it was the 90’s and we had hockey cards that were holograms, dammit. We were enamored of other things that emulated real life or strove for mimesis. DVDs were closer to the movie experience, video on the computer was a revelation, video game systems were getting better and better. We were so obsessed with technology that would bring an experience closer to real life. Which was right outside our door.
Now in the age of the internet where we have proven that we can do it, we seem to be a little less interested in it. Sure, we have video chatting on our phones and 18 megapixel cameras, but it has become noise; technological means. In application, it’s not longer a glorified tech demo. It throws into stark contrast what is true and what is real.
What do I mean when I make this distinction? I’m involved in theater-albeit not as much as I’d like. Putting on a production is a big deal. You’ve got the actors, the lines, the technical aspects of the show, the rehearsals and the paradigm of the marketplace transaction which is the theatre going experience. This is no secret. But it’s also not the truth.
The truth is happening on stage, for when you laugh or cry or feel some other genuine emotion then the actors have done their job. The truth is in how they treat the material and what mood they successfully convey. I’ve been to plenty of productions where the truth is not told, even though the story is well produced.
Images are no different. The word “photoshop” has slipped into common parlance as a verb, sometimes as a pejorative — “Is that real, or photoshopped?” “Can you photoshop me?” “The photoshop pokes fun at the Senator“. I sometimes see photo galleries on the internet that brag “no photoshopping done here!”. Photoshop and other image editing software, however, is merely a piece of technology, such as theater lighting, paints and easels, and sculpting materials. If the technology serves the vision of the art, then I see no problem heavily editing the photos.
The big irony today is that photoshop is often used to make images seem as if they were produced on older technology. The clear crisp buttery images that todays digital cameras make are great for snapshots and certainly glossy photographs helping to sell some product or another. Most of my favorite images have a certain colour cast, vignetting, grain, etc. These are things that camera engineers strive to eliminate, and here we are putting them back in.
The good news is that these simple edits serve to drive home the mood of the images, the spirit, and the emotion in the content. Claiming that an image was ‘completely untouched’ is a bit of a misnomer. The image is processed in-camera to a very large degree. What’s different about the more artistic images is that the processing is squarely in the hands of the artist, not a committee of scientists before the assembly line even starts up. So own the truth, and don’t confuse it with reality. Photoshop away, good people.