There was a time when photographs were synonymous with truth—when you could be sure that what you saw in a picture actually occurred. In today’s Photoshop world, all that has changed. Pictures are endlessly pliable. Photographs (and even videos) are now merely as good as words—approximations of reality at best, subtle (or outright) distortions of truth at worst. Is that Jane Fonda next to John Kerry at an antiwar rally? No, it isn’t; if you thought so, you’re a fool for trusting your own eyes.
Some photographers welcome the new skepticism toward images; it’s good that people are learning not to automatically believe what they see, they say. But many fear that we’re losing an important foothold on reality. Without trustworthy photographs, how will we ever know what in our world is real?
There’s a wonderful article in the new Atlantic by Mark Bowden called “The Hardest Job in Football.” That hardest job is being the director of a television broadcast of a game. Bowden focuses on a man named Bob Fishman, whom he believes to be the best at this job, as Fishman sits in a control room before a bank of TV screens. Each screen shows what one of the many cameras scattered around the stadium is seeing, and Fishman’s job during the game is to scan that bank of screens and decide what the guy watching the game at home on his TV should be seeing at any given moment. It’s fascinating to think what cognitive skills make someone good at this. You have to be able to take in the import of an image in a millisecond — a moving image! — and, in a few milliseconds more, evaluate it in relation to all the other images you’re viewing. But can only do this well not by thinking of the intrinsic visual interest of a particular image, but rather by having in mind a narrative structure, a sense of what the game is about — and not just what it’s about in some general sense, but what it’s about at this particular moment. And that will vary according to whether a team is ahead or behind; whether they are deep in their own territory or deep in the opponents’; whether it’s near the beginning or the end of the game; even what stories have been in the news leading up to the game. The director’s narrative sense, then, needs to govern his visual sense. Fascinating stuff.
The overthrow of the book would have happened long ago but for the great user asymmetry inherent in all media. It is easier to read a book than to write one; easier to listen to a song than to compose one; easier to attend a play than to produce one. But movies in particular suffer from this user asymmetry. The intensely collaborative work needed to coddle chemically treated film and paste together its strips into movies meant that it was vastly easier to watch a movie than to make one. A Hollywood blockbuster can take a million person-hours to produce and only two hours to consume. But now, cheap and universal tools of creation (megapixel phone cameras, Photoshop, iMovie) are quickly reducing the effort needed to create moving images. To the utter bafflement of the experts who confidently claimed that viewers would never rise from their reclining passivity, tens of millions of people have in recent years spent uncountable hours making movies of their own design. Having a ready and reachable audience of potential millions helps, as does the choice of multiple modes in which to create. Because of new consumer gadgets, community training, peer encouragement and fiendishly clever software, the ease of making video now approaches the ease of writing.
This is not how Hollywood makes films, of course. A blockbuster film is a gigantic creature custom-built by hand. Like a Siberian tiger, it demands our attention — but it is also very rare. In 2007, 600 feature films were released in the United States, or about 1,200 hours of moving images. As a percentage of the hundreds of millions of hours of moving images produced annually today, 1,200 hours is tiny. It is a rounding error.
We tend to think the tiger represents the animal kingdom, but in truth, a grasshopper is a truer statistical example of an animal. The handcrafted Hollywood film won’t go away, but if we want to see the future of motion pictures, we need to study the swarming food chain below — YouTube, indie films, TV serials and insect-scale lip-sync mashups — and not just the tiny apex of tigers. The bottom is where the action is, and where screen literacy originates.