I don’t know how many of y’all are old enough to remember the old Memorex commercials on tv, the ones where they played a snippet of sound and asked, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” It was impossible for the audience to tell, of course, and I always kind of resented the commercials because, hey: it was *on TV* which meant it couldn’t be live even it it was supposed to be live. Right? And that was when my brain would begin to hurt. What was live and what was pretending-to-be-live and what wasn’t live at all? What did “live” mean, anyway? Aieeeeee.
I don’t watch tv any more, but I find myself feeling similarly confounded by much of the two-dimensional art I see online. Photographs, collage, art journal pages. It looks real, but is it? In the age of digital everything, it’s often impossible to tell whether something was made by hand or created digitally, or–even more difficult–created by a combination of both. Photographs are particularly confounding. Many, if not most, have been at least tweaked a little. They’ve been cropped or color enhanced or desaturated. More and more, journal pages and collages have been similarly altered, with the work being scanned in and tweaked just the tiniest bit.
In an age where the images of a work of art are often more valuable than the work itself, it’s unreasonable to expect that artists won’t take every opportunity to make those photographs as perfect as possible. And when everyone with a camera phone is a photographer and even bloggers are springing for good quality SLRs, the drive to produce stunning photographs is way more compelling than the desire to capture images that can be presented without enhancement. Why spend three hours hanging around waiting for the perfect shaft of light to hit that tree when you can take a a couple dozen shots and add in the light later in the comfort of your studio? With collage, why bother learning how to create great texture on canvas when you can add that in digitally? If you’re selling prints in your Etsy shop, rather than originals, why not take advantage of editing software to let you do things that don’t require drying time or getting plaster under your fingernails? If you want the image of a Victorian lady in mourning attire for a journal page, why go to the effort to find and acquire an actual image on paper when you can find one online and download it for a nominal fee, if there’s any cost at all?
I don’t know how I feel about all of this. Of course, how I feel about it doesn’t matter: the only opinions that matter are those of the artist and her intended audience, but still. It feels odd not to know what’s real and what’s not. When I look at fabulous photographs, I like to believe that I’m seeing a moment in time, something that really existed just like it was captured. I want to believe the light really did slant in just that way, and that the bird really was that startling shade of blue. When I look at a photograph of clouds, I don’t like wondering whether or not that formation actually existed or if I’m looking at a color-enhanced compilation of days’ worth of cloud photos.
I could have cropped the above photo or made it even more colorful or done a whole bunch of other tweaking, but I love knowing that this image shows what clouds really looked like on one particular day, not what they might possibly have looked like without the telephone poles under them or if the sky had been a little darker or if there had been a touch more orange.
Perhaps it comes from having grown up in a time before virtual reality, when things were pretty much as you saw them: if you saw a photograph of something mysterious–say, fairies in a garden, like the photographs of the Cottingley Fairies–you might doubt that those were real fairies flitting among the trees, but you didn’t doubt that they were something. Some. Thing. Something that existed somehow, whether they were actual flying beings or paper dolls or little creatures constructed of bits of cardboard and hatpins. You didn’t look at those photos and think they were photos of a garden with digital enhancements.
Harold Snelling, an expert on photography, studied the Cottingley photographs and determined not whether the fairies were real living creatures, but that the photographs themselves were “straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time.” I think that’s what is key for me: I like to know if I’m looking at something–or a photo of something–that actually existed In Real Life, or if it’s something else. The something else–something that existed only digitally, a combination of computer manipulation and the imagination of the artist–can be quite wonderful, and there’s an ever-expanding place for digital art. I just hope, for literalists like me, that there will always also be a place for work that hasn’t been tweaked or enhanced.