Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Night flight to nowhere starts in UW Arboretum

Night Flight to Nowhere
Night Flight to Nowhere
The fuel tanks are dry, the engines have conked out, and the plane is on its final glide path. The night is dark and menacing, but with a strange glow in the sky. Will the pilot find a clearing in the inky black forest, thick as a jungle?

Playing with Photoshop: I took this picture in daylight, while photographing Curtis Prairie in the UW-Madison Arboretum. The plane buzzed low overhead and I reflexively shot it through the trees. Just a boring picture of an airplane flying by. It was only in processing the photos that I noticed the fast shutter speed had stopped the propellers. That led me to imagine a plane that was out of gas and the little drama above. I darkened the image, boosted the contrast and converted it to black and white. The caption helped prop up the fantasy. Just fooling around . . .

Photography's ambiguous relationship to truth is nothing new, but technology has made the boundary even more slippery. This is a trivial, playful example of how a photograph can say almost anything we want it to say. The process is not always so playful. And, as filmmaker Errol Morris writes in his NYT blog on photography, you don't even need Photoshop. His thoughtful, illustrated post, "Photography as a Weapon," considers the fake Iranian missile photos that were in the news awhile back, as well as the notorious satellite photos Colin Powell took to the UN when he helped lead us into the Iraq war.
If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.

The photographs presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003 provide several examples. Photographs that were used to justify a war. And yet, the actual photographs are low-res, muddy aerial surveillance photographs of buildings and vehicles on the ground in Iraq. I’m not an aerial intelligence expert. I could be looking at anything. It is the labels, the captions, and the surrounding text that turn the images from one thing into another.

[. . .]

You don’t need Photoshop. That’s the disturbing part. Captions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned. The pictures merely provide the window-dressing.
Just something to keep in mind as we navigate our way through today's media-drenched world in which images play such a major role. Seeing should not always be believing.


TheDude said...

In a sort of related note, i took some high speed videos recently of prop based airplanes flying. It also struck me as just a really bizarre thing. you might get a kick out of them.

theyre at

Madison Guy said...

Who would have thought that the Big Lebowski himself would leave a comment on my blog? Thanks for the link. Awesome videos -- and they seem to view the world just the way The Dude himself does. Cool.