Thursday, September 29, 2005
Lessons Learned About the Potential Misuse of Photoshop While in A Mental Hospital
I attended the first of two Photoshop CS (which stands for Creative Suite) classes yesterday. My class was being given at Emory University’s Center for Lifelong Learning; the fine people at the Center have repurposed an eyesore fortress that used to be a mental hospital. The architecture blew my mind. It’s so oppressive, I wanted to eat a bullet before I’d even managed to park my car. Yesterday morning at about 8:20 AM, I turned off of Briarcliff Road and drove up a long, one-way driveway around the campus to get to my building. The entire way around (which felt like 3-quarters of a mile to a mile), there was no one else in sight, no people, no cars, and the sky was gray and threatened drizzle. To my left, every tenth of a mile or so, was a darkened, squatting building with dirty windows and no discernable entrance (and no discernable purpose) built sometime in the sixties when some architects were obviously competing to build the most unsightly, least humane, and most soul-crushing buildings they could possibly conceive. And so they did. All I could tell for sure was that anyone who came here insane, stayed insane. During a break, I walked around a little and found a room that made me think I’d walked onto the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A wide room (probably made for milling about and checkers games) with 18-20 foot ceilings, a beige-yellow paintjob, and a pastoral view of the hospital grounds that the genius doctors (working with the genius architects) probably thought would have a restorative effect on the mentally ill. But the kicker was a small windowed office set in the middle of the wall and jutting out into the room from the back; no doubt this was where meds were once distributed by Georgian-style Nurse Ratchets to Georgian-style Jack Nicholsons, Danny DeVitos and Brad Dourifs. I guess the truth is that when you’re inside looking outside, it’s not so bad: lots of trees, lots of green grass, and only the tops of those ugly dark buildings. When you’re outside looking AT though, you just want to start bringing the place down with your bare hands. There’s no way the Emory people are going to repurpose the mental hospital out of the place unless they knock the whole frickin’ thing down, which they probably ought to.
Anyway, the class itself was pretty interesting. Though watching a big projected image of someone else working on a computer for six hours is never really fun, the class was diverting and educational enough that I’m not dreading the next session next Wednesday. I learned some basic Photoshop stuff; mostly a few techniques on correcting photos like straightening a skewed horizon, cropping, fuzzing out power lines, switching less appealing elements for slightly more appealing elements, stuff like that. When you’re doing work like this for a commercial interest: some business wants a print ad and the finished image has to look perfect, then yeah, sure. Go crazy, says me. But our teacher often talked about touching up one’s own personal photos. For her friend, she told us, she made her less-than-perfect wedding photos look like she’d gotten married at the Sistine Chapel. Apparently, the result was pretty convincing. I’m sure it was mostly a joke and the friend doesn’t have the altered photograph framed somewhere in her house, (I hope), but because we were touching up exclusively another teacher’s personal photographs from a trip to Italy, I got the sense that there are probably lots of people who use Photoshop for no other reason. It made me wonder: at what point is it no longer “right” to alter one’s personal photographs?
Personally, I feel like there’s enough bullshit in the world and why would you want to make lies of your own personal snapshots? Photos are as true a representation of a moment in time as we’re currently able to produce. To adulterate that, to make a photo (which is already only a selective version of truth as it is) less truthful, to me, is not right. But up to what point can you alter a photograph and it still be the photo you took? Can you erase a reflection of your camera in a car window? Crop out the side of the porthole window through which you took the photo? Erase the power lines in an otherwise beautiful photograph of an Italian hillside crowded with houses and apartments? Correcting red eye? To me, to do any of these things is not to make a photo “better”, but to perpetuate some vision a person had for a photograph when they took it, not the truth of what was captured. To fix a photo, in even such a relatively small way, is an attempt on the part of the photographer to make the result of the photo match the ideal of it, which turns it from a photograph into a kind of art. So if a person were to correct a photo (as we did in class yesterday), of an ocean liner out at sea taken from another ocean liner in which the horizon is skewed two degrees by unskewing the horizon, is that a photograph anymore or is it now art? I’d say it’s art now (good art or bad art, I don’t know), and to say it’s still a photograph would be untruthful. Even red eye. When you see red eye in a photograph, it tells you a bunch of things: the kind of camera used, the kind of flash, the relative skill of the photographer, and the amount of time the photographer had to set up the photo and then to take it. When you go in through Photoshop and put in new pixels to replace the red eye, you’re erasing all of that information. I have lots of photos of my siblings and I as children where we have red eyes from the flash, but I think that altering them in any way, even just to take out that red eye, would be a terrible thing.
In the commercial realm, I concede, it’s different. In advertising, we expect to be lied to, we want to be lied to. Truth is ugly, beauty is, well, beautiful. A bruise on a model’s leg where her coke dealer kicked her may be truthful, but it doesn’t help sell Prada’s clothes. Anyway, the level of truth in the outside world is a whole other issue, but I just worry that regular people, with the help of these amazing software programs, are going to emulate the liars in advertising by altering the images that help define their lives. And just to cover up a small bit of truth they’d rather hide. Eh. Anyway, I think that’s my high-horse for the week.
In other news, I saw a free preview of A History Of Violence last night off of Cumberland Parkway. One of Peggy’s business school people had some free passes and he gave her one for me. The movie’s pretty damn good. I’m still trying to sort my thoughts about it, but I thought it was definitely worthwhile. Just don’t take the kiddies. Okay, I’m out.