Friday, February 24, 2017

The Society of the Spectacle: Am I complicit?

A recent Op-Ed piece in the NY Times caught my eye.  The title was intriguing "Trump and the Society of the Spectacle" and a bit provocative but the content went well beyond the current political situation and analysis.  Take a look and then come back here.

I have purchased Guy DeBord's book, The Society of the Spectacle, but have not yet read it.  Hopefully my understanding will deepen when I do.  But for now what struck me was the role that images play in our current reality.  Fifty years ago DeBord saw that images--spectacles--were replacing direct and personal experience.  Twenty years later, he saw nothing that dissuaded him.  Imagine what he would think now with our media-drenched culture.

In 2000 Kodak estimated that 80 billion photos had been taken world wide.  The low end of current estimates for 2017 is 1.3 trillion.  That is the LOW estimate.  The share taken by phones has sky rocketed to 80 percent from 40 percent in 2010.  In addition to this flood of images, the internet and especially social sharing sites have made this torrent more available than ever before.   (Click here for source article.)

DeBord's concern was that reality, direct experience, would become less and less present to people who relied more and more on images or what he called spectacles.  We just celebrated the first 100 years of the National Park System.  The George Eastman Museum here in Rochester mounted a major exhibit of the photography of the national parks and the role it played in their development and popularity.  It turns out that images (first landscape paintings and then photographs) make for a very effective way of introducing people to places and people who are so different from everyday reality that the imagination isn't much use.  You can describe the Grand Canyon all day but I will never be able to envision it until I see a photo which then provides at least a beginning point.  Of course, to experience it directly is the best thing but for most people images have to suffice.

But here is the thing:  Images have a life of their own and become a part of the cultural history of a place or people.  The early landscape paintings and photographs of many of our national iconic sites determined how these sites would be viewed for generations following.  The viewpoints in Yosemite National Park today are exactly the ones that early photographers shot from.  There may be other views that are equally visually interesting but we tend to overlook them in the attempt to capture what others have captured.

But more to DeBord's point, the image, even photographs which purport to be accurate depictions, is not the same as engaging directly with the object.  With the image, we lose the full human interaction with the subject and substitute whatever reaction we have to the image.  Someone had that direct interaction and images make it possible for that person to share something of the interaction with others.  But it is never completely and totally the same.  Images are seen, discussed, shared and come to have a widely shared meaning that is only one among a number of possible meanings.

Consider the photo here, one that is familiar to anyone of a certain age.  It was taken on February 1, 1968 in Saigon at the beginning of the Tet Offensive.  It appears to be soldier executing a civilian on an ordinary street.  It was adopted by anti-war activists as an example of the brutality of the Vietnamese regime toward civilians and quickly became a symbol for why the war should end.  In fact, the photo was disconnected from the actual experience which showed a South Vietnamese General summarily executing a known Vietcong soldier who had led a murder squad targeting police and civil leaders.   Violent and gruesome, yes.  But it's meaning was manipulated to advance a political cause.  This was possible because it had become disassociated from its reality.  Click here to learn more about this photo.

This photo was a product of photojournalism with our expectation of visual accuracy.  But what of other photographs?  What is the relationship between the image we see and the object depicted.  I will talk about digital photography a bit later but for now consider another iconic photograph by Ansel Adams, Moonrise Hernadez NM.  On the left you see the image as he captured it and on the right the one we all saw after he manipulated in the darkroom.  Adams famously said, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”  A print is a work of art and will reflect the sensibilities and desires of the one who makes the print.  We tend to think that a photo is an exact representation of the object captured.  In fact, each photo is a rendering of the captured image of the object.  Unless one is content with viewing the negative, one has to come to terms with the fact that the photo is the result of direct intervention by the print maker.  Learn more about this photo.  Learn more about Ansel Adams.

Digital photography makes this point even clearer.  A digital image is a collection of "1"s and "0"s that record the characteristics of light falling on arrays of photodetectors.  These are stored as computer files.  Computer programs (algorithms) are used to convert this digital information into images.  A series of choices and decisions about light, color, sharpness, light balance, luminance, etc. determine the exact characteristics of the visible image.  With all these decisions to be made there is the same intervention of a "print maker" even if it the designer who programmed the software in the camera so we could see the image on the back of the camera or on the phone.  One can achieve different results from different decisions.  In addition, just as before, a print maker can further adjust and manipulate the image.

With digital photography, we cannot see the raw image since it is just a collection of those "1"s and "0's.  Actually a typical photo has millions of pixels each one with digital information.  Below are two renderings of a photo I took of a sunrise at the Grand Canyon.  On the top is the original photo with just the processing provided as a default by the camera.  Below is another rendering which has been enhanced in several ways.

Default development parameters
Additional manipulation
Most people would probably select the second rendering as the better one.  I did because I made a set of specific decisions to achieve this.  But this image is now, in a way, two steps away from the reality, that sunrise at the Grand Canyon.  (By the way, most people might think that a video would be more accurate, more realistic.  However with the advent of CGI, or computer generated imagery, you can't even be sure of that.)

All this is interesting and pretty tame but it part of a long development which has shifted our experience from first hand, direct experience to engagement with an image, in fact, trillions of images.  Once we have made that transition, there is the danger that the image will become unmoored from the reality.  At first, this might be in small ways, as with these images, but it can eventuate in bizarre distortions that can be used in political communication to distort reality in the service of an ideology.  "Fake news" is often a third or higher generation of an actual event or even a completely fictitious but believable event.  When people begin to act on these images, we have crossed into unknown territory of "The Society of the Spectacle."

Has my involvement with images and their manipulation been part of a larger cultural process to which I have been oblivious?

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