Wednesday, November 5, 2003

The Acne Scar Vanishes

Before and after details from a photo in which an errant tourist walked into the shot and was later removedOriginal photographs and a composite made by adjusting the pair and blending them togetherDigital cameras are a beautiful thing.

They allow us to immediately see the pictures we've just taken, share them with friends on the spot, on web pages, and through email. You can archive them to CD, securing them for the future and preventing the notorious clutter of analog photographs. Digital albums, like iPhoto, organize images into descriptive albums and services like Kodak and oFoto will even transform your digital images into tangible film prints.

They also allow the more fastidious and computer-savy among us to correct life's little disappointments. Red eye – removed. The errant pimple or bruise – gone. The color balance out of whack – fixed. Bad composition – cropped. Someone in the background fallen out of favor – erased?

This is more than the simple camera-shop correction we've come to expect from local photo mats. Retail kiosks let you revive old family photographs and repair scratches from the negative. This is the wholesale correction-as-modification of pictures. (Photoshop be praised!)

But the modification of pictures – simplified by the digital camera revolution – can be seen merely as the extension of a filtering process long practiced in photo albums. Each and every one of us has neglected to include a picture in an album or frame because of the composition or an inequity of the photograph (or photographer). How often have you excluded an image because your eyes were closed or a pimple glowed red in the center of your cheek?

Now we can correct these minor imperfections and better enjoy our photos. Having recently returned from my honeymoon, I have spent hours going back through the pictures, correcting the color balance, straightening pictures which I took crooked, and correcting for camera lens barrel distortion. Composites have been made and perspectives have been adjusted. And, I admit, there have been some blemishes and bruises removed along the way. There have even been a few ...corrections.

The cover of Such image manipulation has been famously exercised in the past by some of history's most notorious personalities. Maximilien Robespiere, chair of France's revolutionary Committee of Public Safety, repeatedly ordered visionary Parisian painter David to correct his monumental work depicting the revolutionary legislature. As participants fell out of favor with Robespiere and the Committee – and were, in turn, carted off to the guillotine – the petite tyrant would order their removal from the painting. The result, a fabulous work of art by one of the premier artists of the day remained unfinished until Robespiere's eventual – and ironic – decapitation.

But Stalin better captured the scope of the image manipulation phenomenon. In his book, "The Commissar Vanishes," David King tells of legions of artists and politicians running an industry specializing in image falsification and manipulation. This Orwellian process extended all the way back to historical photos of the Communist Revolution – famously removing political opponents from proud scenes of the successful revolt.

And while I certainly don't mean to compare armchair image manipulators – myself among them – to Robespiere and Stalin, some of the same motive remains.

The mere act of doctoring my vacation or event pictures is an act of recreating the past to suit my interpretation of it. I have no pimples in any of my honeymoon pictures because I would rather remember myself unblemished and youthful. The net result is as harmless as the act of taking the picture in the first place – the creation of a record of events and personal adventures. Albeit touched-up to provide the best recollection.

And I'll admit the worst of my digital-adjustment sins – I removed my second chin from a picture. Does this make me a bad person? I don't think so. It means I need to go to the gym. fb

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