I have a soft spot for science fiction, particularly the futuristic work found in movies like Blade Runner, Minority Report, 2001 A Space Odyssey and of course, Star Trek. I am less of a fan of movies like Alien or Independence Day, which strike me more as simple action movies set in the future. Having recently seen a few sci-fi movies has led me to ponder “the future.” I have also seen a couple of new photographic technologies that got me thinking about where our beloved medium is going. What I saw left me not altogether happy. To steal a line form the cartoon character Pogo “I have seen the future and the future is us.”
I just saw the movie, Blade Runner (again,) and I was struck by many things, including how central a role photographs play in that move. Briefly, a detective (played by Harrison Ford) has to hunt down, renegade “replicants,” which are bio-engineered, synthetic people. In the movie, the newest way these non-humans are led to believe they are in fact human is to give them fake family photos so they have “memories” of their non-existent childhoods.
At about the same time I stumbled onto Jumbo Shots, which is, according to their site:
“….an advanced, special effects still photography company for photographers. Our system includes professional staging and equipment, custom made props and beautiful images, including layered photoshop back grounds. Give your customers in-studio, action photography.” See http://jumboshots.com/
Now, I have NOTHING against the people behind Jumboshots. I do not know them and I am guessing that, like me, they are self-employed entrepreneurial types. They are making a product that, like many products, is designed to fill a need. The need they are fulfilling is what interests me, because of what it says something about our society and about the role that photographers fulfill within that society.
Jumboshots is for studio and location photographers who want to sell their customers “in-studio, action photography.” In other words, the studio portrait photographer of the 21st century can now make pictures of kids, for example, in a studio, with the company’s backgrounds and imaging technology, which will yield a realistic looking image of the same kid surfing like a master a top the perfect wave or swinging across Niagara Falls with barely one hand on a rope. They offer dozens of backgrounds for almost any situation imaginable for almost any persona someone can dream up, from space voyager to Hollywood movie star.
Yes, you already can simply photograph a person against a background that looks like the Eiffel tower, but the resulting image lacks the atmosphere and dimensionality that an image actually made in Paris would have. The Jumboshots technology is supposed to give an in-studio image that same feeling of “being there.”
Part of me says yes, the hyper-real nature of the typical portrait is simply being stepped up by software like Jumboshots. Many portraits are idealized images of ourselves anyway, so why not let the customer take it one step further and imagine themselves in an even more unrealistic, even fantastic environment?
My concern is how this software pushes us further and further away from reality. We are not talking about how the reality of the two wars in the Middle East are pushed farther and farther back in our psyche, nor are we talking about how many important social issues are pushed ever further back into the background to be left to fester un-addressed.
We are talking about how adults, and especially children are sold a portrait session where they can live out some short term delusion of achievement with actually doing the work involved in accomplishing that hard fought goal. Climbing a real mountain, in the real world, is incredibly hard work. Climbing atop a studio set to fake a photo which easily quickly becomes a “memory” of such an accomplishment is neither hard work nor is it a truthful way of “earning” a memory.
Yes, people have had their portraits made regularly in front of fake backgrounds. The obvious falsity of those images is why we laugh at those images, as we do not take them seriously. An image where it seriously looks like I might have climbed a mountain in the Alps makes the viewer start wondering about what is true and what is not.
Another example of pushing us further from reality is a software program called Portrait Professional, which is promoted as:
“…a portrait airbrushing software that has been “trained” in human beauty… defect elimination and skin regeneration technology… this incorporates a unique skin defect “find and destroy” function, and uses real skin texture to create a far more realistic result and now incorporates different textures for different types and ages of skin. Makes it easy to make any skin look great, while keeping it looking natural –no more plastic- looking airbrushed skin!” See: http://www.portraitprofessional.com/
I have been wary of this software for as long as I have known about it but only now can say why. I have a daughter who is pretty comfortable in her own skin (pun intended.) Were she not so comfortable, she might succumb to the false notion of the perfect portrait (skin-wise) that is created by the many blemish removal soft wares such as Portrait Professional.
It is true that Hollywood and the fashion industry have been selling us an irrational “idealized” image of beauty for decades, to the harm of many young women (and men.) Until the particular technology of Portrait Professional came along, that hyper fantasized reality was only available to a limited few, which in a weird way was good. A few rail thin, celebrities living out some heroin-chic lifestyle was bad enough, but spreading that aesthetic (and the technology to portray anyone who chooses to see themselves that way) is much more problematic.
In much of the sci-fi I watch (good and bad,) the evildoers who create the technology that runs amok are usually portrayed as big, evil corporations. In this case, Jumboshots is a small (seemingly very small business) run out of Texas. The presumption in the sci-fi movies was that the evil corporation imposed its soul-less technology onto the helpless masses, from high above. If the trajectory of the business, Jumboshots, is any indicator, there is no evil being imposed from above.
Rather an entrepreneur is responding, all but working from “ below.” He is responding to a market demand. He has surveyed the photographic landscape, seen what his potential customers might want and then he built his product. If what he saw has led to things like Jumboshots, then he has seen the future and the future is indeed us.
(Walt Kelly, the creator of the cartoon character, Pogo, first used the quote “We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us” on a poster for Earth Day in 1970, arguing that we are all responsible for pollution, be it environmental, cultural or political.)