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Why Are We So Obsessed With Editing Photos Beyond Reality?

Professor Paul Hertz's work explains that, while photos are intended to support, not replace, memory, we're often set on using them to reformat history.

Kiss 001 (2014). Images courtesy of Paul Hertz

Photos are intended to support, not supplant, memory, but it seems like we’ve always been pretty set on using them as occasions to reformat history. Historically, we’ve been lying through our images since at least the Gettysburg address: the most iconic photo we have of President Lincoln is actually just a composite of Lincoln’s head over politician John Calhoun’s body. That epic photo of Ulysses S. Grant at the foreground of a military camp? A mash of three different images. Benito Mussolini had his horse handler removed out of this photograph, to make him appear more Napoleonic

Although some people are more extreme at it than others, it’s common practice to edit the truth out of our own, personal images. Any time we dress them up with an Instagram filter, for example, we're doing it: each filter is meant to imbue new emotions onto the image, shift its color spectrum, or change its focus in a way that mutates the original image’s imprint.

Hungry? (2014)

As a response, Paul Hertz, a professor at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago, is having fun with this paradigm. His explorations of image manipulation parallel those of our edit-enamored internet culture, in a way that could be seen as either empathetic or critical.

Hertz’s 2014 photo series takes recognizable images from open domains, like public Flickr accounts and Wikimedia Commons, and cakes them with so much digital make-up that they look absurd, in the truest sense of the word, and probably not too far from the works of a select few selfie/Photoshop fanatics you already associate with...

Buttes Chaumont variation (2014)

Girl Running (2014)

“When we decide to ignore the capacity of algorithms to ‘enhance’ images and instead set them loose to produce their own signature qualities as tools, we imitate what has already been done with marking strategies in traditional media,” explains a description of one of Hertz’s most recent projects, Glitch Bodies. “When instead of advancing towards the senses, the image recedes beneath the mark of the tool[...]”

Air Travel 002 (2013)

In one way, this practice resonates in the same key as poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s exploration of “uncreative writing” and language in the digital age. Where Goldsmith believes that the creative processes brought on by new technologies, like word processing and programming, are reinventing writing, Hertz sees image manipulation algorithms, and widespread editing techniques, as shifting the parameters of imagery in the 21st Century.

Hippie Atom Test (2013)

These images don’t belong to Hertz, but when he stokes the mineshaft of bytes, pixels and dimensions beneath their digital manifestations, they shed their foundations while keeping their context, and ultimately become entirely different kinds of records— all beneath the mark of his tools. It’s a clever artistry, one which attempts to take dominion over the customizable universe of visual language we’re now accustomed to thanks to the internet and programs like Photoshop.

Uniteds 003 (2013)

Or, it could all be seen as a major critique on said universe of visual language: his photos also seem to circle the idea that the editing process, if ever truly necessary, should involve illuminating the most unique aspects of an image, in order to elicit a focus on said image’s liveliest qualities. Used as a kind of social media subterfuge, a tool to erase relative “negative” qualities of an image in pursuit of some unreal ideal, it opposes the more popular practice of image manipulation with the hopes of eliciting a positive response from the public domain.

Perfect Camouflage (2012)

In any case, Hertz has offered a lot of work to consider. His glitched images comprise an ongoing series, each of which partake in this examination of imagery’s new culture. They also share the technical foundations of having been created by GlitchShort, an app Hertz made with open-source programming language Processing which relies on “interrupted pixel-sorting” to produce the effects you see here. (This perhaps explains why it might feel like Hertz’s motives also parallel the deconstructionist ethos of LA-based coder Casey Reas, who founded Processing alongside Ben Fry in 2001).

Flor (2014)

“[These images] participate in the nervous energy of online culture,” says Hertz. "Metaphorically, [the process of photo editing] points to the instability of our senses and memory as we struggle to reconstruct the image from its artifacts.” This struggle can either be taken literally, as with newer image and video manipulation techniques like image stabilization, which allow users to focus in on specific parts of blurry, shaky or busy videos and thereby override uniquities applied by the original creator, or as something with greater moral implications, including the innate phobia of knowledge defecits, which push governments to use our images as documents to counteract that instability.

Van Gogh’s Irises (2013)

Either way, it’s fascinating to think about the fact that, at one point, the image was considered the de facto purveyor of truth, confirmer of alibi, capsule of memory, and preserver of time. Now, with computing and the internet, every single one has the potential to be a mirage. In the future, maybe we’ll reconsider digitizing and then ditching all those old shoeboxes of old family photos.

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno

Related:

"Photoshop In Real Life" Takes Photo Manipulation Literally

Photo Series Constructs Symmetrical Faces To Test Traditional Notions Of Beauty

Kenneth Goldsmith Printed Out 33 GB Of The Internet In Support of Aaron Swartz