No Longer Worth a Thousand Words – Our Pictures Not So Perfect

Rohinton Ghandhi

The young boy was standing in front of a small wooden table on which laid a birthday cake with four lit candles. You could see the gleam in the little guy’s face, and his underlying smile of knowing that this was his day to be celebrated, and his day alone. Dressed in a clean white shirt, dark slacks, and a clip-on bow tie, we could sense what he was thinking as he continued his bright-eyed stare into the candles. We could almost feel his wonder at what other miracles life would bring, and that this birthday was certainly one of them. He was the only one "in frame" with the rest of the party blurred out of focus in the background. It is truly amazing what details our eyes can still pick out when simply viewing an old 4"by 4" black and white photograph. The lack of color and shades of gray only add to the mystique of that moment frozen in time. Challenging us to use our imaginations and to look for the smallest details to further discover the stories behind our "ripple-edged" images. Our old photographs were at one time, something we could hold, something that told our stories and something that we held as a permanent record of our own moments in time.

In those times, our photographs were upheld as "living proof", a time when "seeing was believing" and when photographs left us with only our imaginations to interpret them. Whether it was a photo of a global disaster, a ghostly image captured out of thin air, or a newly found half-woman-half-fish mermaid, a photograph was the closest we had to the truth, as our cameras could not lie. Photographs then, had the ability to surprise you with what shadows and shapes they caught. From the film negative to light sensitive photo paper, our images magically appeared out of the chemical mist of our developing trays, or in the case of Polaroids, developed right in front of our eyes. Depending on how the light hit the subject and on how much of that light we captured, even the most subtle variation in shades played with our mind’s eye to dramatically change the "mood" of each photograph. Just like with music, the moods of our old B&W photographs had the ability to drive our emotions and excite our senses, with the level of contrast determining the level of drama in each photo we viewed.

In the past, a picture was "worth a thousand words" and encouraged us to use our imaginations to "uncover" the truth within an image. Prints could be still be "doctored," yet their imperfections were much easier to spot on film.

From the days of using "silver-glass" plates to take photos, to instant images, to our home B&W darkrooms, our ability to capture an image in time has lost its sense of magic. The beauty of the process itself, opened our eyes to endlessly possibilities to see our world in its true light, form and style, which made them an authentic part of our lives.

That has all that has changed with the arrival of the digital age. Digital cameras, and their built-in special effects software, effectively removed all of the technical limitations we had with film, and now encouraged us to use our imaginations to "hide" the truth within an image. We are today allowed to freely distort the true images we take with our cameras. By losing their through-the-lens purity, today’s digitized photographs have simply lost the integrity that our old photographs once gave us. Making them more of an art form than authentic fact. Today’s digital images can be manipulated so convincingly, that we are left wondering what is true and what is not, effectively making them "worth less than any words."

There are blatant examples of digital distortion all around us, in the billboards, advertizing and in the many other medias surrounding us. With the click of a mouse, our magazines, and specifically our tabloids, can instantly morph a 6-foot Yeti into a handsome prince, shed 20 pounds from a model’s waist, make anyone look 30 years younger, and can even make that newly found half-woman-half-fish mermaid look like a girl you’d bring home to mother. All great images, yet all hiding the truth.

Like the phonograph, it is not likely that we will ever return to using our film cameras. Technology has destroyed the "honesty" value of film photography, for the convenience of an image captured by an electronic signal to an electronic file. Making today’s photo-taking process quicker, faster and more instant, but not necessarily better.

As by giving us more flexibility and creativity to cheat, today’s photographs have lost the credibility and the honesty we once looked to them to find.

As we age, our memories loose the crisp details of the people we once knew. Yet, our photographs of them remain as fresh as the day they were taken. Allowing us to "meet" them again and again, to see their smiles, to feel their love, and to revitalize our own values through their images. Images
which stand still in time.

So dust off those old family albums, and get reacquainted with the people and places within them. The journey itself is worth the trip, before the glossy prints in our own minds begin to fade to black.