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Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

'The camera never lies' goes the old saying. From the dawn of photography to the present day, we have had that cool glass eye of the camera lens - there to witness and capture an uncompromising, precise rendering of the world around us... .

'The camera never lies'

...Oh, if only things were that simple!

But then again, if things were that simple, the world of photography would be a pretty dull place.

Raise a camera to your eye - and you automatically exclude what you don't want to record; that's the first step away from reality... Now choose a focal length, film type, format size and so on - and you will soon be some considerable distance away from just taking a picture.

It was always thus. The camera is a highly subjective tool. It always has been. It always will be. The photographer can pursue the truth or propagandise. The choice is entirely in the hands of the user.

Film maker and photographer Errol Morris put this idea very succinctly-

“There is no correct way to take photographs or to make documentary films, or for that matter to write books; it's not about correct and incorrect. Truth is something that you seek in what you do. You strive to understand the world around you but it’s not guaranteed by style. Using available light or a hand held camera doesn’t make your work any more truthful than anybody else’s work.” 

And these days, a photograph can be created even if you discard the camera entirely; just fire up the computer and step into the strange world of AI. AI generated imagery has exploded onto the photographic scene. Artificial Intelligence is blurring the border between myth and reality in ways never seen before - and at an unprecedented rate.

Another saying comes to mind: 'A picture is worth a thousand words' and now words are the commands that are building AI imagery. Image maker Mario Cavalli created the Old West image seen above using purely text-driven prompts to the AI generator. For these 19th-century images, Cavalli started out with phrases like 'sharp focus,' and 'wet collodion photography'

“...In essence, there’s a lot of trial and error involved. Much depends not only on the content of the prompt but the order in which certain instructions appear,” Mario Cavalli

Cavalli created two sets of AI images; one of cowboys and cowgirls in the Old West and the other from London in the 1860s.

But close examination of the images reveals the flawed world of AI. This picture is convincing until we look closely at the gloved hands... Which look more like bananas than fingers

Typical mistakes from AI include six-fingered hands and horses with no legs. Look again at the hands in that image at the top of this blog...

...Her hands are a molten mass in her lap. His, wildly different sizes.

And look at that nonsensical sign and madly tall footless figure in the background.

Cavalli says - “I’ve received a lot of comments calling ‘Fake!’ but there are others that think they are authentic historical documents; I’ve never claimed them as such, or presented them as anything other than AI-generated images but there is clearly a danger there.”

No doubt AI's glitches will soon be ironed out completely. And then what? God only knows where this technology is leading.

But traditonal photography has only ever been as authentic - or, let's say, as 'truthful' as the intent of the photographer.

Photographs reveal as much as they conceal.

Errol Morris - “All photographs are posed... All images are neither true or false; every image contains absence. Something is ALWAYS left out of the frame. A photograph is a 2-D snapshop torn out of the reality of the world... We should all be more curious about what we’re actually looking at."

And so we must ask those questions that have haunted photography since the beginning: what makes an 'honest' photograph a 'true' photograph? Is this medium more - or less - factual and authentic than other art forms? What makes a photograph a 'fake'? Can a photograph ever be objective or is it always subjective? Can a photograph truly document reality? When is it propaganda? When is it art? Can a single photograph be all of these things simultaneously?

...And does any of this really matter?

A great photograph is a mystery about a mystery.

Garry Winogrand - that genius of street photography - said, 'There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.' Winogrand got as close to simply 'taking' photographs as possible. He simply reported what he saw. But of course there was nothing 'simple' about his technique. He was looking for the mysterious - and captured the world without offering any answers-

A mystery about a mystery... Who are these people - and why is the man's nose bandaged?

Photo by Gary Winogrand - Los Angeles, 1964

American photographer, Larry Sultan, specialised in a unique blend of staged and documentary photography as he built his visions of the physical and psychological landscapes of American life.

'Tasha's Third Film' photo by Larry Sultan - from his series 'The Valley' 1998

By his own admission, Sultan's attempts to stage photographs never worked as powerfully as the kind of images he caught from reality. Larry Sultan once said he 'always thought of a great photograph as if it were some creature that had walked into my room; it’s like, how did you get here? ... The more you try to control the world, the less magic you get.'

In the immediate moment after a photographic image is captured it is, by definition, hurtling into the past. But the quality of a great photograph lies in the way in which these essential images of the past - of life - seem imbued with the future. You could argue that a great photograph (whether taken yesterday or a century ago) retains its power because it reveals some great human truth; 'people are people' - now and always. Times may change but human nature remains.

The figures of Mario Cavalli's AI nineteenth century world never existed. And, oddly that is what makes them so spooky. They have no past and no future. They are ghouls that simply haunt the present. Our real images of the past give us pictures of our ancestors - caught in the photographic amber of history. We look at their faces, and wonder at a real moment from history - and of the fate of those in the image. Our questions are rarely answered. We accept that the photograph is the remaining evidence of the unknowable.

A mystery about a mystery.

...We can spot the real from the fake. At least for now. But what will happen when AI image generating is perfected? Will the AI ghouls demand their own past and make a claim for the future? How will we defend our history - as we struggle to identify the real from the imaginary?

For now at least, fact remains stronger than fiction. But the day could come when AI infiltrates the global archive and then we will be forced to recognise that 'history (let alone Nostalgia) ain't what it used to be.'

Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman

Images strictly copyright their respective estates

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