Multimedia Review/ILS 604-Winter 96
Verdades y Ficciones
(Truths and Fictions)
Requirements: color capable Mac, 16 bit display, 5000K of RAM allotment (7000K if you want to operate in millions of colors instead of thousands), 640x480 (or larger) monitor. 4/95.
"What of the photograph made out of nothing? What about painting with light? Is it photography? Surely if we can paint with light we can paint with dreams, create the morning mist or the afternoon glow. Is it fake? Hardly. Whatever else may be false in this tenuous existence of ours, imagination is not. All that we value, that we strive to uphold all that gives us strength, has been made of dreams, and we must dream on. If pixels be the vehicle that realizes our dream, be it so."
"The quality of my writing may have improved somewhat, my spelling is no longer an embarrassment due to spell check. I write more, but my thoughts aren't any clearer and I am not a better person because of this technical assistance."
Truths and Fictions is multimedia CD-ROM that addresses, in words and images, the concept of digital photography, its present role and future implications, and the pros and cons of working in such a medium. The central artist is Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer, and additional commentary is provided by John Green from the California Museum of Photography, and by a number of people all over the world who have corresponded with Meyer re: this subject.
There are some nice tools for manipulation of the program and the images it contains; however, this isn't a terribly interactive experience. Much of it involves listening and watching, and clicking buttons to move along or zoom in for a closer look (not being a big game player, this is more than fine with me). The most noteworthy element of my experience was not the way the program worked (this was fairly seamless and simple) but the manner in which it addressed and illustrated its subject.
I'll begin by briefly outlining the organization of the program elements and move on to concepts and questions posed by Meyer, Green and the letter authors regarding the digital image and its place in "reality".
- Main Menu
You can alter sound volume, choose a language, or quit the program by using the menu bar that appears at the top of the screen when you place the cursor at the top of the page. Otherwise, it is hidden.
- The program is presented in four sections, all accessible from the entry screen:
Entry into this section brings you to a striking black and white still image of a whirling woman with a Quicktime player superimposed over its upper right corner. The movie begins playing instantly, showing a series of moving images of people in Mexico, accompanied by the narration of the artist. He suggests here that the notion of "magic" disappears with familiarity and knowledge, a theme that will be replayed again throughout the program, and talks about his photographs, altered and unaltered in relation to a global change in perceptions being experienced all over the world. The movie is typical Quicktime quality, with pretty low resolution and jumpy movement. The still picture behind the movie was more arresting than the jerky, blurry moving images, and I found myself concentrating on that while I listened to the artist introduce the work. It was not unlike watching CUSeeMe; all in all, if the speech is important its easier to concentrate while watching a stationary image.
This is a collection of the artist's images, beginning with unaltered photographs and segueing into digitally manipulated photographs. Images are shown one or two to a screen. The black and white pictures come off a little better than the richly saturated color photos; however, since I love photography so much I found the reduced quality of both to be a bit frustrating. You are always given a zoom tool to close in on a picture, and occasionally this helps, but sometimes it makes things worse, as the picture actually appears more blurry in close-up.
You can choose from Narration, Visit Gallery and Index Options.
- In the Narration section, John Green from the California Museum of Photography takes you through 23 pages of images produced by Pedro Meyer, and along the way gives you some background about the artist, his two homes (US and Mexico) and the importance and significance of his work in each place.
Green contrasts the wry, angry black and white "nightmare" pictures of the United States, which usually point to themes of hypocrisy and prejudice, with the more gentle, colorful "dream" creations from his native Mexico, filled with images of saints and ghosts and angels.
- In the Visit Gallery section, you can browse at your leisure, which is liberating after the set pace of the narration. You can take a linear tour of these pictures in a virtual gallery but also have the capability to switch to the Digital Studio portion of the program by clicking the camera icon at the bottom of the page (when present). I'll discuss this section more later.
- In the Index section, you can access thumbnails of the pictures that will take you to the Visit Gallery section.
This section lets you access letters received by the artist in three ways; excerpts or "quotes" from the letters, grouped together by theme (you can click any quote to get the full text of the letter); the whole letter, formatted to match the program design; and a scan of the original letter. I liked the quotes section best; the groupings were interesting and covered a variety of approaches and reactions to the question of the legitimacy of digital photography. The quotes at the beginning are from two of the letters in this section.
You can also access the letter from a pull down menu that divides the authors by country and alphabetically by last name.
- Digital Studio
This is at once the most remarkable and the most disappointing section of all. Meyer takes 40 shots used in other sections of the piece and includes, on the page with the finished product, all the elements used to create the final image (contact sheets, groups of photographs). He narrates each page, explaining the entire process, what went through his mind, the technical aspects and the stories behind each image. The initial discovery of "how he did that" is a lot of fun, but I did get that "Wizard of Oz " feeling (I'll never forget when one of my older brother's friends told me, during the Munchkinland scene in the Wizard of Oz ,that the city off in the distance was actually a backdrop. I've never been able to see it with my original eyes again). Knowing the trick somehow changes the authenticity of your experience. There is a suspension of disbelief in the experience of most art forms, a willingness to enter into a contract with the artist that what they present is "real" for that moment. Learning how a magician does the trick is momentarily gratifying, but ultimately a letdown if you're main interest is that of an audience member. From a technician's standpoint, Meyer's methods and explanations of his thought process are a real learning experience. He is a warm and convincing narrator, whose voice, even flattened out a bit by the audio capabilities of the computer, manages to convey his honest excitement about the growth and execution of an idea.
Strangely enough, knowing the process bothered me more with the colorful dreamscape pictures that involved children and mythological creatures, rather than the ironic black and white US shots. Revealing the process cost me the magic of the first, but not the irony of the second.
You can zoom in on images while he narrates without interrupting the audio, which is great.
The Digital Image
Meyer does not deny that the digital capabilities for changing images can be a dangerous one, especially if photographs are still regarded as authentic records of an experience. His own approach, however, is that of the artist, and John Green makes some excellent points in his narration about the slants and points of view a photographer brings to images even if they are not altered in anyway. To some degree, any photograph is not an exact representation; they have all been abstracted to some degree, whether by method of printing, composition, choice of subject matter or deliberate ambiguities. Meyer's "unaltered" photographs are every bit as confusing and stimulating as his enhanced images. They are never completely objective. Cropping, subject, quality of light--all of these can be used, though perhaps not as dramatically, as digital alterations to produce a final effect. Meyer's photographs are not meant to be pure representations. All the images challenge our perceptions of what makes up the "real" world of that moment.
Another observation by Meyer: images today are seen as they happen, images can become obsolete as they happen, and technology becomes history instantly. What is the difference between the immediate effect of an image and it's archival value as a record?Will the digital moment replace the decisive moment? If representation (or misrepresentation) of fact is not your concern, then perhaps there is no right or wrong, Meyer says, only questions.
The digital technology employed by the artist lets him make layered paintings from a series of photographs. He "takes pictures" of places we haven't been before (or maybe we have, but not quite awake). Meyer challenges our perception of what is "true" and what is "expected" by creating works of unexpected juxtapositions, even in the original images. His alterations are often so subtly done that it takes you a moment to place what is fantastical about the picture. Of course, part of the reason he uses this technology so effectively is that he is so good at crafting the original images to begin with.
Some of descriptions of the images that struck me:
- A picture of a news videographer taping a burning building as the tape is played in real time on a TV outside the building (the image being seen as it is produced; "instant commentary, instant replay").
- A set of pictures grabbed from the Rodney King tape: when you zoom in by increments the act of beating a man fades away into a thousand sparkling dots. The message can be twisted into "you're not seeing what you think you see". If we can manipulate at the pixel level, when can you trust your eyes?
- Picture: A sign for Caesar's above a field of migrant workers. The sign reads "Free luxury services from your motel". Meyer's US. images paint a bleak, ironic picture of the Mexican experience in the States.
- Picture: Stripper lying on counter with legs raised to a patron's staring face; he explains that even something as intimate as sex has been reduced to a visual.
- A picture of an enormous chair in a public square. Meyer asks you to take a moment to write down what part of the photograph has been altered. After a moment, he explains that this chair does in fact exist, and shows you scans of the original contact sheet of pictures. This photo followed a series of digitally altered photos, the point being that if you are operating with the mind-set that nothing can be trusted, everything is automatically suspicious. Abstraction increases as the alterations become more difficult to discern.
I am so inclined to look for the danger in so many new things; while I could never support censorship in any form (because once they take one thing away, can't they take everything?), that belief is constantly put to the test by the darker potential of so much that is new. Parts of the Internet, the real misogyny and hatred in some music, film and television, the ability to wipe out historical accuracy in a photograph...all of these things don't make me inclined to censor, but they do muddy up my conviction a bit. This collection of Pedro Meyer's work gave me the opportunity to see a new technology used by an artist capable of using it to make see a whole new version of the world, if only for a moment.