The Big Think

June 8, 2012

Digital Deception

Filed under: Technology — jasony @ 12:22 pm

So, I have this weird theory about modern photography. Back when I was growing up we took pictures on celluloid film. As the pictures and prints and negatives age they turn different colors. It’s technically called “reciprocity failure” as the chemicals used to make the images break down over time. The upshot is that old pictures look… old. You can tell a really old picture because it’s yellow sepia-toned. Pics from the early part of last century are black and white, and even images from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s have begun to take on a purplish cast. I can looks back on photos from my childhood and the fact that they *look* old gives the image a sense of temporal distance; a connection to me as the subject but also a disconnection from me in time. A definite sense of history.

Not so with modern digital pictures. That photo of your children taken today will always remain *exactly* as clean, crisp, and “new” looking as the day it was laid down in ones and zeros. In fifty years it will still look as brand new and fresh as if it was taken this morning. This is why I looked at pictures of today’s college students taken when they were kids and get a very strange sensation of “who is that? It looks like you, but it can’t be!” I fall for the ongoing deception of the digital image.

Nothing wrong with any of this, of course. But it is fascinating to me that one of the subconscious measuring rods that we have as a culture of determining the emotional impact of images has been so dramatically changed in the past decade. Doubtless the grainy images of Viet Nam, President Lincoln, Aldrin on the moon, etc, would gain something if we could suddenly see them in 10 gigapixel super high definition. But I can’t help but think that we would also *lose* something important if those ancient imperfections were removed. Old photos give us a sense of history passed just because we can see the process of aging. Digital images are youthful forever.

In the future this means that we will never again have that sense of time passing as we move on and the images from our history slowly fade away. Digital technology means that our past is now. Forever exactly, perfectly present.

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