November 2008

A press release recently came across my desk about an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery. It wasn’t the Ivy League headline that caught my attention, it was the title of the show, “First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography.” Here’s an excerpt of the show’s description: “By employing unexpected juxtapositions, novel vantage points, and unusual patterns of light, shadow, and texture, the photographs on view destabilize the viewer’s eye, causing it to question what it is seeing.”

The exhibition, however, isn’t one focused on how photographs are made, but rather on how they’re perceived. As Joshua Chuang, Assistant Curator of Photographs and the organizer of this exhibition, explains, “Neither the strategies, intentions, and serendipity of the photographers nor how their pictures function to confuse remain as critical as the fact that they do confuse—if only for a moment. The pictures themselves contain a paradox: they confuse because they hold still these particular incidents of confusion, yet it is this stillness that allows viewers the opportunity to resolve the optical problem.”

In the current digital era, ubiquitous image-editing software has made it easy to manipulate photographs so that they appear too good—or too strange—to be true. Well before Photoshop became a verb in our visual vocabulary, however, photographs such as those included in “First Doubt” resisted the notion that the world could be satisfactorily seen and known through the lens. Collectively, these pictures remind us that the camera is, at best, an imperfect surrogate for human vision.

With the rise of digital photography came a clamor that, without film, we would lose the camera’s ability to be a mirror on reality. What I love about this exhibition is the recognition that even in its infancy, many photographers found that photography itself fell well short of the reality in front of our eyes. I receive a consistent, if small, stream of e-mails from readers who complain that Digital Photo Pro’s continuous display of images that have been heavily processed in Photoshop is contributing to the public’s increasing distrust of photography.

Of course, we’ve covered this subject quite a bit in the magazine, but this exhibition struck me because of the notion that it had been early photographers themselves who had been so strongly critical of their medium’s ability to record reality. As if to drum this fact home to a public that didn’t get it, the photographers in the exhibition went about making images that would be incredibly confusing to look at and therefore reinforce photography’s shortcoming vis-à-vis reality.

Photoshop and digital technology, in general, haven’t done anything to harm the reputation of photography and photographers when it comes to reflecting the real world accurately. If anything, these tools actually can be used to make up for some of the medium’s inherent deficiencies by giving photographers a higher level of control over the image. And Photoshop and digital technology also give all of us an even more powerful set of tools to increase the distortion of reality, if we choose. Personally, I prefer the latter.

—Christopher Robinson, Editor

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