Saturday, July 24, 2021

Altered images

I've been thinking this week about pictures and photographs. In part, this was sparked by a blog on altered images—that's not a reference to the Eighties pop band but to photoshopped files and the artistic possibilities they offer. It was also prompted by my reading of a spellbinding essay in which the author (Chris Arthur) reflects on a childhood photograph of his mother. And finally, my motive was influenced by a request from one of my readers to post a picture of Oscar's new friend Eric!

The purpose of these acknowledgements is more than mere introduction.  I want in a few allocated sentences to paint as full a picture as I can; to let you in on the background as well as seeing what's up front; to put this piece in perspective and present the truth as best I can.

In which endeavour I'll inevitably fail. 

For even if my words were perfect and we had all the time in eternity they could never be more than a curated representation of things as they really are. 

Such is the way with pictures too. 

We intuitively know this with a practice such as painting. Indeed it is very much its purpose, even for so-called photorealistic art (a paradoxical term if ever there was one) which by its verisimilitude, challenges us to look more closely at the world as it is. The image in art is a product of response not representation. 

But with photographs—leaving Photoshop aside—we more typically think the opposite; often we use photographs as objective evidence or documents of record. And of course, in one sense, this is fine and appropriate. But in another—and in their filtering out of references and senses of a different sort—they are as flawed as my words will always be.

As you look at the snap of Oscar frolicking with Eric, do you get a sense that his owner was nervous; that she (or was it a he?) was at first concerned they might run off...  And what of the heat of the day, or the smell of the sea... the sand between my toes? 

Which I have to tell you was irritating and not pleasant at all—because if I didn't you'd not know it from the image. Just as you'd not know that I was there without Jane because she was nursing her mum; that Dylan and I were sad at her absence; that Oscar was out of sorts all week too. And I'm not even scratching the surface here.

Does any of this matter?

Soon after I took the picture, I passed a family setting up their blankets and windbreaks for the day.  The kids were pushing and shoving; dad was moaning about the heat; mum looked like she was frazzled already...  Until their teenage daughter shouted 'photo everyone' and all of them posed with Facebook smiles, waiting for the silent click of a virtual shutter. 

I wonder, in years to come, what recollections that picture will conjure; what stories its pixels will print on the pages of that family's memories.  And does it matter too if those are truth or myth? As my art teacher once said, 'We none of us know if the Mona Lisa is an accurate likeness.'

Which should remind us that all images are altered realities. 

The process of composing them is itself an editorial act—part of the curated representation I spoke of earlier.  What's more, in our making of pictures (and especially so with the taking of photographs) we are inescapably bound to altering our experience of the subject. Whatever our side of the shutter, are we not posing for that perfect portrait?

So perhaps the operative word in this blog title shouldn't be altered, but one I've used twice in passing. For to curate is not only to select and organise, it is to care—and if in so doing to we tint our memories with a rose coloured wash, then is that such a bad thing?  Just as our senses filter out peripheries, perhaps our taking of photographs allows us to carry our past more lightly? Perhaps the altering of our images is what's needed if we are to bear the weight of the memories they would otherwise hold. 


  1. Hari OM
    The lens records exactly what is there. True, the photographer composes what goes into an image. Each set of eyes doing the viewing interprets what is seen (or the brain does) and can only work with what is presented to them. People's memories are a different factor altogether, albeit images can be a trigger and - as her maj recently observed, recollections may differ.

    Before entering your words I lingered on the image because I loved that there was a WFT willing to gambol with Oscar... they were clearly running circles with each other as the pawmarks show in the wet sand, and in their body shapes and slight blur. The sand is clearly 'sticky.' That there was bright sun is evidenced by the shadows. The image is only about them... so why extrapolate on humans not present in it? There is no reference to the owners in the image to cause the viewer to even think of them. If it was important to the photographer to make record of the humans, they too ought to have been framed. Then we might have seen something of the concerns you mention... for I put it to you, never read the smiles. Only ever read the eyes. Read the body language - it will be there, however subtle. To discuss elements that are not present in an image, though, is to enter existential realms, even fantasy.

    One can only reasonably discuss what is visibly present in relation to an image. When social historians look at images (from, say, the Depression), they are not only interpreting the images, but applying knowledge gained from written records of various kinds. Unquestionably, photographs are an excellent record of times and places and the people that inhabit them. Even when saying 'cheese.' YAM xx

  2. Mark, it is something about the human mind that we can retain a memory of happiness and all its sensations, and we can remember having been in pain (physical pain) but we cannot recreate the sensation of the pain. The theory goes that childbirth would only happen once per woman if the pain experienced didn't fade in the memory.) Maybe our brains are designed at some fundamental level to curate. We can't retain every input we receive in a day so we select those that we each regard as worth retaining - the thing we each choose to pay attention to.

  3. That's given me food for thought. Many a holiday (often camping) with the children when they were smaller, was remembered in happy family photos of them on the beach, or at castles and so on, which don't tell of the Midge Misery (on Skye), or fractious children who just wanted to sit and play and not go for a walk to see a castle, or tired parents who couldn't sleep because the campsite was so noisy. I guess we interpret photos or paintings as we see them - at face value - perhaps only picking up on any subliminal message by body language (with people or indeed animals too).

    As for "altered" pictures, someone on the Southampton history site I belong to on FB, put up one of the always-popular-and-in-the-same-spot - with the same old boy running it - Mr Whippy van, photoshopped to show it had melted - like an ice cream would - in the heat of last week. There were actually people who BELIEVED IT HAD HAPPENED!! He was accused of cruelty by picturing the scene of the old boy's demise and his "widow" received phone calls of condolences!!!!! What is up with people? How stupid can you get? Don't they know the basic rules of science - e.g. metal does not melt at 30 degrees (unless it's Mercury) and how about the old boy would have got out first even if it WAS possible? These people have the vote!!

  4. I have never warmed to professional photographers. Mind you, painters can be a pain in the arse too.

  5. That group photo with the cheesy grins, do always wonder what it hides. That's why I rarely pose or get people to pose... or start taking as they pose and carry on as they relax...

  6. I think of un-Photoshopped pictures as mostly accurate representations. True, they don't capture everything -- the underlying mood of the participants, the scene just outside the frame -- but a good photo does capture SOMETHING of the reality. It's a piece, not the whole thing.

    And yes, pictures can be deceptive, even when not intentionally made that way via editing. But that's where the photographer's judgment comes in -- the photographer ideally chooses the images that are accurate. I'm personally opposed to Photoshopping pictures in ways that turn them into something not reflective of reality. (This is my journalistic background coming through!)

  7. Well as someone who has always taken photos to capture the moment, I try not to be too deep about it. I know that when I look at them they give great pleasure and memories. Only photoshop flowers and occasionally landscape. What perhaps we should all do is take a photo from the vast range we hold on computers and sketch what was happening at the time to fill in what was happening at that time.

  8. " I could be happy" was an excellent Altered Images song and would make a good title for this post.

  9. I think that photographs represent a version of the truth but not all versions. They are a representation of a visual image in the second a photograph was taken but it is often the second following which I find yields more. Especially in posed pictures.

  10. When I look at the photo I published on my Fés photos post I know that when Liz was looking away from the camera when we stood by the oranges she didn't want that photo to be taken and it was taken on the day when a big row was brewing which was to blow up later. Nobody else looking at it would ever know that and would I suppose just put their own interpretation on it.

  11. My father was coralling the family into posing on the beach with 'FaceBook smiles' long before Mark Zuckerberg was born! We have albums filled with such images.
    Thanks for the photo of Oscar frolicking with Eric. Erics looks like a fine specimen of a WFT with beautiful markings. Given the depth of colour of his dark patches, I'd say he's a good bit younger than Bertie.
    Cheers, Gail.

  12. An interesting description of photography! I am utterly convinced that photography mirrors the person behind the camera (too :-) - meaning that if two people photograph a thing or a person you will have different pictures.

    I photograph a lot - and (for me) I am for "the pure thing" - it is not that I cannot use photoshop - I do not want to. Those artificially hightened colours etc, or taking off what the eye might not love - not my cup of tea. I walk into each offered photo-exhibition - and luckily in Berlin you are showered with them.