Looking Through a Lens

Wall Street Opinion Journal September 19, 2006

Talking over 9-11.One 9/11 picture, thousands of words: Rorschach of meanings.

Faith in the camera as an infallible eyewitness was supposed to have died for good with the advent of Photoshop. Critics have opined for years that the popularity of such digital trickery would erode the truth value of all photographs. What attorney would risk introducing an 8-by-10 print as evidence of a murder scene if jury members knew how to rotate bodies and paintbox skin tones on their home computers?

So far, nothing of the sort has happened; indeed, quite the reverse. Despite the shame visited this summer upon certain photojournalists for their “fauxtography” in Lebanon–darkening skies, adding smoke and fire to scenes of battle–evidence produced by cameras has never been so prevalent or taken for granted. The view that photographs accurately reflect the chaos of events or inner states of mind remains stubbornly unshaken, and some of the most zealous believers are photographers themselves.

The eruption in the media and on photo blogs last week over an image taken on 9/11 by the German photographer Thomas Hoepker–and the glib interpretation put upon it by Frank Rich in the New York Times–has proved once again that we don’t need Photoshop to doctor the meaning of an image. Our minds do this job, adding or eliding information as we see fit, better than any computer program.

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