Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations: Some Considerations

In this article, Martha Rosler discusses the danger to truth posed by digitally manipulated images. She points out that image manipulation is as old as photography itself, and the first montage techniques came about as a result of the limitations of the medium (early orthochromatic film did not have a wide enough dynamic range to make good exposures of both sky and land in the same exposure). Such manipulations, Rosler claims, were “in the service of a truer truth, one closer to conceptual adequacy, not to mention experience” (2004, p 263). However, the use of manipulated images for the purposes of deception is another matter. Fake photographs used for political purposes (either misappropriated, edited post production or staged for the camera) is a “long-standing trick“. Rosler touches on restaging and faking in war photography (something I looked at in depth during level 2) and mentions the famous Capa photograph. What I had not known was that there is a very similar image of another fallen soldier taken at almost the same angle. This website discusses how the images may have been taken with a Rolleiflex mounted on a tripod and then cropped down, rather than with a Leica held overhead at arm’s length:

Rosler also looks at the restaging of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The first image was actually taken under fire by Louis Lowery, while the second (more celebrated) was taken after the battle had ended by Joe Rosenthal:

Apparently both sets of marines were told to lie about the event!

Rosler also mentions the fake newsreel footage of the taking of San Juan Hill in Cuba, which I found online here, while here there is another collection of Edison newsreels, apparently restaged in New Jersey. Rosler explains that the audience were not yet versed enough in viewing images to question their veracity, and that early newsreels were meant as entertainment, while the contemporary notion of journalistic objectivity came about as a result of press criticism of politically-biased coverage of the Spainsh-American War. Nevertheless, she asserts that most manipulation is carried out for the purposes of commerce and entertainment as opposed to pushing political agendas, and that “technology is following a cultural imperative rather than vice versa” (p 270).

Once again, there is a clear difference between images presented as news, and those used to promote lifestyle or business – those Rosler terms “interpretive” representations; it would appear that manipulation is to be avoided in the former, but accepted, even advocated in the latter.

the truth-value of photography is often overrated or mislocated” (p 279).

Rosler made the following prediction:

As the public becomes used to the idea of the image as data in flux, the believability of photographic images – the common assumption that a photo is true unless shown to be otherwise – will likely wane.” (p 291)

This article was apparently first published in 1989, and since that time, more than 25 years later, I do not see any real ‘wane’ in public assumptions that photographs show true events. That the public have become more sceptical and image literate is another thing.

Rosler states that merely circulating images does little to mobilise or inform, and says that what is needed for adequate interpretation of the images is contextual information, since documentary images “cannot work, unless the audience already shares certain presumptions about ‘what things mean’” (p 292). The images may be accurate, but not sufficient on their own to be able to “tell the truth.”

As Rosler sees it, the problem is as follows:

The increasing commercialization of everyday life continues to blur the boundaries between objective evidence, informed knowledge, prejudicial opinion, and sheer fiction.” (292)

We no longer understand whether we are watching the news, an advertisement or fictional entertainment. Rosler warns of the dangers to impartiality and objectivity when the press and the public sphere cease to stand apart from the interests of the State: “the danger that people will choose fantasy, and fantasy identification with power, over a threatening or intolerably dislocating social reality” (p 297). This we have seen and will continue to see more of as news agencies cease to be self-governing, while journalists themselves are embedded and coached on what to report.

While Rosler states that the history of the photographic image used as raw evidence is rather short, it is something that photography has always been championed to do (see Sekula’s essay on Body & Archive). However, I assume she means relative to the rest of cultural history, since she continues: “the erection of Potemkin villages for politics or entertainment neither began nor will end with the electronic manipulation of photographic imagery” (p 297).

Although she mentions the rise of the citizen journalist, and amateur footage being used more often in news broadcast, deemed to be unimpeachable testimony since the producers are assumed to lack the technical expertise or political bias to manipulate the imagery, but at the same time, who is to say that the footage labeled as amateur was actually made by non-professional journalists? Unfortunately, as she is quick to relate, our allegiance still lies with the state and its corresponding bodies, since: “we seem likely to forgive those in power for abusing it as long as we don’t identify personally with the abused” (p 298). This is so true, and why certain injustices are accepted over others.

The final point that Rosler makes is that the gulf between rich and poor economically is likely to be repeated when it comes to information access – “threatening to convert democracy into demagogic rule” (298). Basically, if we don’t know what’s going on in the world, how can we mobilize and rise against it?

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