Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Images of Perfection

Never give a relativistic generation digital cameras:
REMOVING her ex-husband from more than a decade of memories may take a lifetime for Laura Horn, a police emergency dispatcher in Rochester. But removing him from a dozen years of vacation photographs took only hours, with some deft mouse work from a willing friend who was proficient in Photoshop, the popular digital-image editing program.

“In my own reality, I know that these things did happen,” Ms. Horn said. But “without him in them, I can display them. I can look at those pictures and think of the laughter we were sharing, the places we went to.”

“This new reality,” she added, “is a lot more pleasant.” [...]

Such manipulations represent “a new coping mechanism for us,” said Heather Downs, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has studied the role photographs play in families. Idealized images , she said, can give people “a new script for dealing with problems families have always had: family members who don’t get along, divorce.”

“If you can’t have the perfect family,” she added, “at least you can Photoshop it.”

To a certain extent, photographs have always represented not-quite-reality. Those old black and white pictures of stern ancestors in their best clothes can't possibly reveal Great-great Uncle Byron's wicked sense of humor, Great-great Aunt Sylvia's habit of pursing her lips when she was irritated, or the mischief or manners of long-dead distant cousins, removed or not. But at least they weren't removed from the photograph; if a "black sheep" disgraced the family enough to be cut out you'd end up seeing the scissor marks, and knowing that something tragic had occurred.

Not today. Today we can play with our faces and features, make it look like we really did lose those twenty pounds before the family reunion, or add a hint of a mustache and some ugly wrinkles to a much-disliked relative just for spite, or to a much-loved one for a joke. We can blur our defects and bold our assets and leave future generations with the notion that we were practically perfect in every way; we can edit out the blemishes and add vanity to vanity in every picture we take.

It used to be that snapshots were funny, blurred things taken by amateurs that really did reflect some aspect of our reality; the handful of pictures that survived someone's whole life became priceless treasures when they were no longer with us. Now, though, huge files of digital images and the ability to manipulate them to our hearts' content may make photographs say less about our families and more about the world we live in, where the temptation to reflect illusions of perfection in every aspect of our lives becomes overwhelming, and robs us of that connection with the past that photos once ensured.

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