Perfect Vision

What I like about Lev Manovich is how he forces us to realize that however new we might think our Brave New Digital World is, much of it is rooted in older media paradigms and sensibilities.

His essay, “The Paradoxes of Digital Photography“, seems so familiar. That’s because it's all in “The Language of New Media,” although it's split into two different sections in the book.

In the essay, he makes a big mistake regarding lossy compression — that “each time a compressed file is save, more information is lost” is completely incorrect. He must have noticed , because that statement did not make it in the book. More importantly, it doesn't even matter, because, the way people use digital files, it's compressed once, and then (perfect) copies of that file are passed around. No one re-compresses a file before sharing it.

But the more important points of the essay hold true. Photography has never been only about realism, and his example of advertising is on point. Much of advertising is about fantasy, and no one mistakes that for real life. More importantly, what Manovich is saying is that there is no “photography” — there is no single conception of it. It's not only “realism,” and it's not only a lie. There was never “normal photography”:

Straight photography has always represented just one tradition of photography; it always coexisted with equally popular traditions where a photographic image was openly manipulated and was read as such. Equally, there never existed a single dominant way of reading photography; depending on the context the viewer could (and continue to) read photographs as representations of concrete events, or as illustrations which do not claim to correspond to events which have occurred.

He also discusses the issue of representation and the real, but with a twist:

For what is faked is, of course, not reality but photographic reality, reality as seen by the camera lens. In other words, what computer graphics has (almost) achieved is not realism, but only photorealism — the ability to fake not our perceptual and bodily experience of reality but only its photographic image.[16] …And the reason we think that computer graphics has succeeded in faking reality is that we, over the course of the last hundred and fifty years, has come to accept the image of photography and film as reality.

Maybe the “truth” photography represents isn't “truth,” but only the lens's version of truth. We've been changed, bodily, by seeing through the camera. Here's Susan Sontag, from “On Photography”:

Cameras did not simply make is possible to apprehend more by seeing (through microphotograpy and teledetection). They changed seeing itself, by fostering the idea of seeing for seeing's sake. (93)

McLuhan, of course, also has much to say on this matter, as cameras are, for him, an extension of the visual sense, an extension of the eye.

Which returns me to Manovich, where I think he's at his most provocative. The perfectness of the computer image becomes the perfectness of vision:

The synthetic image is free of the limitations of both human and camera vision. It can have unlimited resolution and an unlimited level of detail. It is free of the depth-of-field effect, this inevitable consequence of the lens, so everything is in focus. It is also free of grain — the layer of noise created by film stock and by human perception. Its colors are more saturated and its sharp lines follow the economy of geometry. From the point of view of human vision it is hyperreal. And yet, it is completely realistic. It is simply a result of a different, more perfect than human, vision.

Whose vision is it? It is the vision of a cyborg or a computer; a vision of Robocop and of an automatic missile. It is a realistic representation of human vision in the future when it will be augmented by computer graphics and cleansed from noise. It is the vision of a digital grid.

If photography really has the ability to change our vision, if technology is an extension of our senses, then I think Manovich is undoubtedly correct. Computer vision is human vision of the future.

Our dependence on machines, now an interdependence, really, points us in that direction.

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