To Create an Alternate Truth: Photography after the Shutter at CMA
“In the early days we were surprised and delighted with a photograph…but we soon wanted something more. Because the photograph told us everything about the facts of nature and left out the mystery. Now, however hard-headed a man may be, he cannot stand too many facts; it is easy to get a surfeit of realities, and he wants a little mystification as a relief…” —Henry Peach Robinson, 1896
Should photography serve the truth? This question has been debated for 180 years and still has not been settled. Perhaps it is no surprise that in recent years the question of truth and photography has reached new levels of precarity, as most people have taken to documenting their lives with the high-powered camera in their pocket (along with a host of editing apps to help style their reality as needed). Just as in the past, photography plays a key role in how we see the world—but never has photography been so easily manipulated, and yet simultaneously so quickly absorbed. In our post-Photoshop age of Snapchat filters, Instagram influencers, and “fake news,” photography has once again pushed beyond the boundaries of truth with ease.
This spring a new photography exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art will address this very issue, featuring artists that intentionally breach the limits of photographic reality. For Beyond Truth: Photography after the Shutter, the CMA will debut thirteen works (seven recent acquisitions) that all utilize some manner of postproduction alteration, and in a delightfully cunning move, will also include altered selfies submitted by the public (using the social hashtag #CMABeyondTruth), to be shown on a video screen during the show.
Photoshop was only ten years old when photographer Loretta Lux began altering her eerily surreal photographs of children. Included in the exhibition is a striking example of her early work, Isabella (2000). In images such as this, the artist combined studio portraits taken with a digital camera with hand-painted backgrounds. The resulting image is then “worked on” by the artist for months in the computer program to create the final product. A pioneer in the use of digital alteration, Lux’s oddly unsettling photographs have a way of touching a primeval memory of childhood in the viewer. To me, her re-imagined portraits aren’t really portraits at all; they end up becoming dream-like self-portraits of the artist herself, searching for a childhood long gone.Also included in the show are three new acquisitions by the British duo Anderson & Low from their Manga Dreams series. Inspired by the street culture they experienced in the shopping malls of Tokyo, the photographers invited young people who dress as anime characters to pose for them in their studio. The resulting photos were then superimposed onto artificial backgrounds and altered digitally to make them appear even more animated than in reality. The resulting images, such as Ming with Sword (2009), speak to the way young people project alternative identities through their appearance. Anderson & Low take this process even further by using digital techniques to actually make their subjects’ “Manga Dreams” a reality.
Of course, young people styling themselves into a carefully crafted persona for a photo is nothing new, but in the age of selfie-culture, it has become nearly passé. Therefore, I find it incredibly clever that the museum is encouraging visitors to submit their selfies, but not just the aesthetically pleasing normal selfie—they want intentionally altered selfies. Their website instructs: “Want to be a part of the exhibition? Take a selfie and use the photo-editing tools at your disposal—filters, face-altering apps, or effects—to manipulate your image and create an alternate truth. Post your photo to social media using #CMAbeyondtruth.” While obviously an excellent marketing tool, I think this kind of engagement enriches the museum-going experience for viewers as well—allowing them to participate in a space that is far too often exclusionary for many.
But something that is also dredged up when examining truth and photography are the much darker consequences of it all. There is actually a phenomenon known as “Snapchat dysmorphia” now, when selfies and photo filters drive people to get plastic surgery to alter their appearance to match their “alternative truth.” And we have yet to see the impact, especially on young women, of selfies on self-esteem, or the psychological toll of trying to live up to one’s digitally-modified life.
This is not to mention our increasing dependence on the machines and tools that make these alterations so tauntingly easy to accept as truthful. Also included in the show is a portrait created by artificial intelligence. The artist Trevor Paglen built two AI systems, training the first to identify images, and then challenged the second to produce an image that contained the least amount of information necessary for the first AI to identify its subject as a human. The resulting horrific image showcases what can happen when we teach machines to see for us, and given how much we all depend on our machines to extrapolate reality, every day, hopefully the works in this show will give us pause.
Beyond Truth: Photography after the Shutter
February 10–May 26
Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Gallery | Gallery 230