Is it just me that finds this a tad disturbing? I received this email from Adobe the other day telling me about all the amazing things I can do with Elements 15, one of which is the ability to ‘turn a frown upside down’ and make ‘everyone in your photos look their best’. Where do I start? Firstly, I guess, is something I will be returning to again and again; the notion of truth. Photography gave us our first chance in history to relate the truth – all previous means of expression or representation were by definition subject to lesser or greater extents of mediation and interpretation – a tweak with the paintbrush here to add an extra sparkle to the sitter’s eye, the slightly more flattering adjective there in a piece of descriptive prose to make a landscape that much more appealing… But photography did not lie – a century and a half’s worth of the sometimes brutal truth. Yes, of course it was possible, with the requisite high level of skill, to manipulate photographs to an effect more dramatic than the original, but it was extremely difficult and time-costuming to bend the photographic truth. Now, apparently, all it takes is a few clicks. Any idiot could do it. Maybe even me. It has become too easy to once again tell a half truth, or even a downright lie, with an image. My problem, I suppose, is that it’s still called photography, and the end result of this deception is still called a photograph. I kind of hold film, as a medium, sacred because of the above reasoning. I don’t have an issue with contemporary technology (anyone who knows me well will maintain, correctly, that by saying this I am indeed using digital technology to tell a big fat whopper) per se, but what I think is wrong is that the digital world has nicked the word ‘photography’.
This might sound like pedantic semantics (probably because it is) but when photography was invented at least its practitioners had the good grace not to just call it painting and have done with it. Painting with light, perhaps, or, as the translation of the word has it, light-writing, but the medium had the gumption to realise that it was new and distinct from all that had preceded it. Rant number one over…
Rant number two: what’s wrong with a frown? When did it become important that we should either be – or be seen to be – happy all the time? By capturing the wide and complex gamut of human emotion, the camera has hitherto made manifest and acceptable our individual expressions of not only joy and elation but also our unhappiness and despair – thus making these experiences – and all emotions in between – common, and therefore perhaps, by virtue of this, the human condition itself, more acceptable and manageable. Perhaps historically photography has helped us to feel OK about how we feel, even if how we feel is a bit less than tickety-boo. By subjugating, denying and mitigating these ‘negative’ emotions are we somehow also denying ourselves the ability to feel them, thereby making their experience less acceptable?
Thirdly: childhood is the one place that we have the freedom, the blissful ability to express ourselves without the constraints of our sometimes choking social mores and protocols. What do we want to do with the memories of our children – turn them into one big homogeneous lump of happiness? Maybe because if we can do that then we can conveniently gloss over the fact that we weren’t the paragon of parenthood that today’s perfection-obsessed media tell us we ought to be. We, and our children, are neither happy nor in any other way perfect all the time and by the ability to kid ourselves otherwise are we not setting ourselves up for a lifetime of striving for the absolutely impossible?
We don’t just smile with our mouths, either – maybe why that’s why the above photo (along with all these other reasons) gives me the heebie-jeebies… happiness is expressed in so many ways – a smile is just the tip of the iceberg of a whole range of facial muscles interacting together to form an expression of happiness. To reduce this complexity to a click of a mouse is, well, frankly a bit weird.
We are heading towards a time where, once again, our pictorial memories of our pasts will nor be reliable – is this progress?