Ce n’est pas un blog

We all know by now that you can’t trust magazine covers and advertisements for skin-care products. The power of Photoshop is startling when you see it in action, and realize how much the representations of reality we see all around us–on billboards, in the news, on television, onilne, even in the most casual Flickr snapshots–are distorted and “improved” according to whatever the current standards of blemish-free beauty are. On the other hand, the current generation of online participants has been steadily gaining the skills needed to detect “photoshopping” — the tell-tale smudges, spots of flat color, inconsistencies in lighting, and pixellated artifacts left behind by digital manipulation. Still, arguments rage back and forth about whether the latest cover girl has been photoshopped slimmer or not.

Well, things are about to get a whole lot more tricky.

This video is a presentation by an Israeli computer scientist of a new technique for resizing images. It’s a few months old, but I just discovered it and it’s worth watching. This technique (which interestingly, is based on an algorithm developed for video game characters to find their way around virtual worlds) is likely to show in the next generation of Photoshop. It’s astonishing and almost disturbing how easy and fast it is to distort distances or remove objects entirely with these tools. anyone who’s used cruder equivalents, like the magic stamp and various airbrushing and smoothing tools, will tell you that this sort of thing can take hours, especially if you try to leave few traces behind.

I couldn’t help but think that this puts very powerful reality-distorting tools in the hands of the masses. Expect to see more, better photoshopping, and maybe more techniques for spotting photoshopped material too. If you look at some stills from the researcher’s website you can see that some of this stuff looks quite natural, although none of it was high-res enough for me to be able to tell if there are artifacts. Although I don’t imagine newsrooms will be using this stuff for photojournalism any time soon (at least I hope not… back when I worked at a daily paper, it was strictly verboten to even rotate and crop a photo, much less distort one) I’m sure it’ll pop up all over the place. Maybe the generation of kids growing up now will just understand without a second thought that pictures don’t necessarily represent reality, that you can’t always assume you know the difference between fact and fiction. And perhaps Rene Magritte’s clever observations will seem almost too obvious?

20 comments for “Ce n’est pas un blog

  1. exholt
    December 6, 2007 at 4:15 am

    As someone who used Photoshop professionally at one time, I was constantly surprised at how polished the graphics created could be depending on one’s artistic eye and skill level in Photoshop. Didn’t do much beyond create standard web graphics for corporate clients…and playing around with altering personal photos for my own amusement.

    I can understand the concern about reality-altering software like photoshop being more widely available. I am not sure, however, whether it is as serious of a concern now as knowledge of photoshop and its capabilities is far more widespread now than it was when I started using it several years ago.

    Have not read too much Foucault…was he basically saying that with the increasing availability of reality altering artistic tools that art would become drab mass produced kitsch without much uniqueness and aesthetic appeal?

    If it is, then how much of that is due to actual loss of aesthetic uniqueness…and how much is due to his social elitist grumbling that this loss through ease of these artistic tools effectively erases the exclusivity and value that was once the domain of those in his social class?

    I do not mean to be provocative, just posing a question as a curious person whose knowledge of the arts is at the layperson level.

  2. Linnaeus
    December 6, 2007 at 11:09 am

    I don’t know much about Foucault and especially not about his views on art, but there certainly have been other critics who lamented the arrival of “kitschy” mass-produced art. I’m thinking here of someone like Clement Greenberg; in the essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, he defends avant-garde art like abstract expressionism and claims such art is an alternative to art influenced by consumerist values.

    On the other hand, there’s someone like Walter Benjamin, who would have claimed just the opposite: that technology democratizes art and makes it available to a wider audience, both as producers and consumers. If you’re interested, you can have a look at The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction to see his argument. He was writing in the 1930s, so he’s talking mostly about technologies like photography, but certainly “new media” technologies would be applicable to his argument.

    What I think of when I read about something like this is the philosopher Jean Baudrillard and the concept of the “hyperreal”; with manipulation of images becoming easier, we’re perhaps seeing a further blurring of the distinction between that which is real and that which is fantasy. The foundation of hyperreality is the simulacrum, which is really hard to define, but the best definition I’ve found for the way Baudrillard uses the term is to say that a simulacrum is a copy for which there is no original. This advanced Photoshopping, which creates a “reproduced” image of something that didn’t actually exist because you manipulated it, would be a simulacrum in the view of someone like Baudrillard.

    It’s an interesting argument.

  3. Aunti Disestablishmentarian
    December 6, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Ohhh. My space – time continuum hurts.

  4. Bitter Scribe
    December 6, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    Oh, if only Stalin had had this for his purges…

  5. December 6, 2007 at 6:40 pm

    This video is a presentation by an Israeli computer scientist of a new technique for resizing images.

    What does the fact that he is Israeli have anything to do with it?

  6. eloriane
    December 6, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    I think a healthy amount of skepticism towards the images we see everywhere would be a good thing, actually. I suspect that if this sort of thing became a common feature in web browsers– or just in photo-editing software– it would become the default to assume that a photograph has been manipulated, unless there was a message or logo to indicate otherwise. I think a lot of places would choose to leave their photos untouched, and to include that logo/message on everything (newspapers, documentaries, some sites and magazines, like National Geographic) but that others wouldn’t bother (most websites, fictional movies, magazines), and as a side effect, those that didn’t show untouched photos would lose some legitimacy.
    Which is a roundabout way of saying that when people saw magazine covers, the default assumption would be that they were photoshopped– and therefore, however pretty, not representative of realistic goals. Which I think would be good for everyone.

  7. Aura Kitten
    December 6, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    1. Shamir’s algorithm
    2. insert Marshal law
    3. ??

  8. Farhat
    December 6, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    I saw this a few weeks back, the presentation itself is a few month old though. The way the delete those characters at the beach is certainly cold. I hope it doesn’t get too prevalent too quickly.

    Also, I don’t think Israeli was meant in a pejorative way. I am sure if it had said French or Japanese instead of Israeli you wouldn’t be asking that question. I assume nationalities were indicated simply because they were non-American.

  9. December 6, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    What does the fact that he is Israeli have anything to do with it?

    Because Holly is a raging anti-Semite and wanted to make it clear that this Israeli scientist is part of an evil Zionist plot to re-form images and take over the world. Duh.

    Seriously, I’m not sure what this question is even supposed to be getting at. People use national descriptors all the time, and we use them here all the time — “A study in Ireland found…,” “A British scientist said…,” “An Egyptian newspaper claims…” etc etc. Often it doesn’t matter if the study is in Ireland or Iowa, if the scientist is British or Belgian, or if the newspaper is published in Egypt or Enumclaw. It’s a descriptor. People use them. It’s not always insidious.

  10. December 6, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    Ouch, I’ve been caught. I originally wrote “a researcher at the Efi Arazi School of Computer Science in Israel,” in part because I’ve found there’s often an assumption that scientific & technological research always happens in the United States — or at least people assume that if you don’t say anything. Then I decided it was too long, so I shortened it to “Israeli computer scientist.” What I didn’t realize was that I was playing into the pernicious stereotyping of Israelis as computer nerds and/or invested unwholesomely in the manipulation of digital images.

  11. December 6, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    Holly and Jill,
    You could just say “nothing” instead of making fun of me.

  12. car
    December 6, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    Whoa. I didn’t find it too interesting until about second 52, and then I gasped out loud. Creeeeeeepy. Of course these kinds of things have always been possible, but when they get so easy to do, you can’t trust any image any more because everyone can manipulate everything.

  13. December 6, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    Actually, National Geographic, which was once a bastion of photographic accuracy and excellence, photoshopped at least two covers as far back as the 1980’s. The hope that media will not mess with photographs is … alas, a lost hope.

  14. Farhat
    December 6, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    Photo manipulation has been around as long as back as photos have been around. Most people don’t realize that when they are seeing that gorgeous landscape or a beautiful model it didn’t exactly come out that way from the camera, there is noise reduction, color enhancement, and other things that make it better to look at. There is, of course, the argument between making it better to look at vs. changing the content of the pic but even that can get murky as with the National Geographic pics where someone moved the Egyptian Pyramids around so they’d all fit into the cover.

  15. exholt
    December 6, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    don’t know much about Foucault and especially not about his views on art, but there certainly have been other critics who lamented the arrival of “kitschy” mass-produced art. I’m thinking here of someone like Clement Greenberg; in the essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, he defends avant-garde art like abstract expressionism and claims such art is an alternative to art influenced by consumerist values.

    On the other hand, there’s someone like Walter Benjamin, who would have claimed just the opposite: that technology democratizes art and makes it available to a wider audience, both as producers and consumers. If you’re interested, you can have a look at The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction to see his argument. He was writing in the 1930s, so he’s talking mostly about technologies like photography, but certainly “new media” technologies would be applicable to his argument.

    Linnaeus,

    Thank you for providing names and suggested reading material on the subject.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of music conservatory classmates* I’ve met in college tended to fall more into the view espoused by Clement Greenberg. Often privileging exclusivity and uniqueness of the avant-garde and the implicit social elitist values that often accompany them…with a patronizing snobbish tone to match.

    Only a handful of the conservatory classmates were open-minded enough to not sneer dismissively when I mentioned liking mainstream rock music and old Chinese folk tunes…tastes they not only felt were plebian…but exhibited an implied opinion that European classical music is not teh greatest music evah. An opinion they would consider downright sacriligious.

    * I cannot speak to art/art-history majors as I didn’t really know any while in school.

  16. December 6, 2007 at 11:43 pm

    Well, I don’t know if I’m a ‘kid growing up now’ (I’m 21), but I already view pretty much every picture I see with a large dose of scepticism. Fortunately, most of the time pictures are there just for prettiness, especially on webpages, which I read most, and whether or not the pretty pink flower in the logo is real or not doesn’t really affect me. I guess I usually assume things are ‘shopped unless it’s says so or it is some kind of fairly reputable source, such as Nat Geo (though after reading the comments, maybe I should rethink this?). I guess even my generation has been brought up to learn that often pictures aren’t ‘real.’ I don’t know what implications this has.

  17. Tricia(freya)
    December 7, 2007 at 1:06 am

    Just to clarify at #13, they didn’t “Photoshop” them in the 80s because Photoshop wasn’t released until 1990. But there have been manual ways to manipulate photos for a very long time.

    Several years ago I attended a lecture by D.J. Stout – the guy responsible for the “Ann Richards on a motorcycle” cover of Texas Monthly (1992) which was one of the first big controversies about “Photoshopping” that I can remember. Even after all these years, my boss and I still have some of the same discussions every time we do a new photo shoot. How much can we do to appease the people being photographed without becoming as unrealistic as Vogue or Cosmo…

  18. Brad Jackson
    December 7, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    I think David Brinn, in “The Transparent Society” had a pretty good take on easy manipulation of images: as more people produce images it won’t matter so much. With the increasing availability, edging to ubiquity, of cameras it’ll be quite difficult to fake pictures of public events because too many competing photos will exist, and especially with the rise of blogs, etc attempts to fake pix of public events will be quickly exposed.

    Non-public events, of course, are a different matter. But its always been possible to convincingly fake photos, the only real difference is its becoming cheap enough that everyone can afford it instead of just governments and the wealthy.

    But the whole “the camera doesn’t lie” line has always been false, cameras lie all the time. If not though outright fakery then they lie by context, by what is omitted, etc.

  19. December 9, 2007 at 3:34 am

    If you use The Gimp for image-editing (I can’t stand it because of the name and the different-windows-all-over-the-place interface, but set it up just for this), someone went and made a content-aware resizing plugin for it that you can get at http://liquidrescale.wikidot.com/en:start . It doesn’t do that cool thing of allowing you to see something get resized right away as you drag it, but works great otherwise once you get the hang of it.

  20. tps12
    December 10, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    Wow, that’s a really elegant algorithm. Very cool. I don’t think it’s particularly scary…what’s scary, really, is the idea that photographs, even untouched, have ever been able to capture “reality.” Cameras don’t even work like eyeballs, and they definitely don’t work like brains, and the conceit of photography being able to capture visual truth is really nothing more than our mistaking “realisticness” for reality. The more common this kind of thing becomes, the sooner we can right this error in thinking and recognize photography for what it is: a powerful medium for conveying ideas, but no more inherently “real” than an oil painting or Garfield strip.

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