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?