The Treachery of Images (This is not NeoTokyo)

Rene Margritte was thinking about the idea that images create in our brain, the unconscious jump that our brains make recognizing a representation of a thing as the thing. And yet, he was working with paint, on canvass. There is the immediate acknowledgement that a painting is a representation of a thing.

Photos are even more treacherous. Even in the modern era where the world at large is intimately familiar with the power of photo editing software, we still have that gut reaction to assume that a photo is a direct representation of a scene at a certain moment of time, even though, with photography, that has never really been the case.

Photography has it’s own particular technical limitations that distort the truth. Lenses distort what you see. The limitations in dynamic range, and their artificial expansion beyond the natural, distort what you see. And color… the colors always lie.

Even before digital photography and raw developing software made color manipulation so accessible, film manufacturers distorted color. They sold their films on that color distortion, and print shops have always monkeyed with the colors, attempting to adjust to what colors they thought were “right.”

And… largely… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Really. Constrained to Margritte’s treachery, I think that it’s a treachery that we can live with, and we can think about, and understand.

But there’s another sort of photographic treachery that doesn’t sit well with me, and it has become really common. I remember running across people complaining about it on the internet when I was getting into aquarium photography, living near the Kaiyukan, but I didn’t at that time have the perspective to understand the problem.

People were complaining about the crazy, unrealistic color editing on fish. Light doesn’t travel through water well, which means that the colors underwater aren’t really as vivid or as clear as what the same fish, alive and healthy and well let would look like. So people fudge the details, and often come up with crazy, vivid colors that create striking images.

Striking, treacherous images.

You see… they’ve departed from the experience. They aren’t real anymore. Those images, to me, represent a dishonesty on the part of the photographer. A dishonesty that I dislike. Which is weird, because I’m completely comfortable with other sorts of complete photographic dishonesty.

You see, there’s this thing where you can use every photographic trick in your bag… to get to an image that maybe isn’t a “photograph” according to journalistic standards, but at the same time, puts all that effort towards getting the viewer to that place, where, if the viewer had been standing next to you while you shot the photo, they could say, yes… this represents my experience of this view.

The most basic trick is photo framing. We use selective framing of a photo to control the reaction of the image’s audience. But we do that to ourselves, too, unconsciously putting things to the edges of our view, and focusing on the thing we want to see.

The trick that’s attracted my ire lately, attracted my ire the most, is the horrid abuse of colors in pursuit of the “Bladerunner” or “NeoTokyo” look. It’s a lie, and it creates a horribly fake image of the place I’ve lived for more than a decade. It creates an alien other from a neigbborhood full of normal, everyday working stiffs, doing their thing, raising their kids, and getting by, just like everywhere else. The internet feeds these Bladerunner Tokyo images to the world, and when the world comes to visit, they are tragically disappointed at the normalcy of Tokyo. Tokyo’s pretty normal. Pretty great, but humans are humans, and there is no crazy futuristic technology in Tokyo that Chicago or London don’t have. I mean, except maybe the technology to oddly flavor Kitkats.

I think going onto the internet and seeing these horrible misrepresentations of the neighborhood that I live in has made me really realize what I had listened to divers complain about more than a decade ago. Just like divers reacted negatively to images they knew to be treacherous, so do I and the other denizens of Tokyo.

I saw another treacherous image that didn’t sit right with me, and it didn’t sit right even though I could specifically point to images that I’ve done that are worse. I’m not going to call anyone out or link to the image, but it was well done. It was an image of a bridge. It was a small-aperture, long-exposure night photo of a bridge that had been done well, and then the photographer took a second image, defocused, to create bokeh bubbles everywhere, and overlaid that on top of the other image, so the bokeh trails echoed and accented the sharp stars of the lights in the photo. It didn’t sit right with me because I felt like, if I had been standing next to the photographer, the final image just didn’t reflect the reality of the experience.

And yet.. I can’t exactly say why my image of the momiji near Kawaguchiko is any different. That image has all the tricks… multiple exposures laid on top of each other, artificial light sources, spot editing… and yet, somehow, to me, I feel like it does honestly represent the experience of being there, in Kawaguchiko, for the momiji. And for those of you who are screaming at their monitors now… yeah. I can accept that. It’s exactly that conflict that caused me to start thinking about exactly this point, and start writing about it.

What is it in my mind that makes the image of the bridge treacherous, and yet my own momiji photo not? I don’t know if I can honestly defend that position. It’s something I’m going to have to continue thinking about.

A little more defensible, in my opinion, are the star trails. Standing there, under the stars, we don’t see them spin. But we know they are. Or rather, we know we are spinning under the stars. Even though a star trail in the digital era is a giant pile of photos edited carefully together, it still represents a truth, and it doesn’t depart from the experience of being there and seeing it… in my humble opinion. Making a good star trail photo takes a lot of digital massaging. You’re taking one clean image, ideally before the sun sets or after it rises, and adding the stars from the darker night into that image. It’s definitely a sort of treachery, but is it dishonest?

One other treachery that I’ve engaged in, and feel absolutely not bad about, is using multiple images to compress time into one final image. I have one photo, where I took two shots in a row, with the high speed shutter on my D800. In the first, there was a beautiful falling sakura petal, but in the second, the bird was posed in a way that I liked better. So I stacked them in photoshop, and added the falling sakura to the better image of the bird. The final image is certainly a creation in photoshop, but at the same time, if you had been there with me, you wouldn’t feel that I was lying about what it was, being there, watching the mejiro sport about in the kanzakura.

This sort of photographic trickery has been going on since photography started being photography. Ansel Adams is one of the more famous photographic hucksters, with him and his fellow f/64 gang members compiling final images in the darkroom from many individual negatives, tailoring the final image to be treacherous… but honest. I’ve been to a couple of the places that Adams has shot, and I’ve never felt lied to. Sure, I’ve felt like I should be ashamed of my piddling attempts to mimic him, but I’ve never felt that his images were dishonest.

And I think that’s what it really gets down to. Photography is storytelling. I think that nobody has any problem with listening to a story if it’s true, or if it’s fiction. As long as you know. It’s when you tell a fictional story and present it as truth… that’s the real problem.

Images are treacherous. And so am I.