Friday, June 18 2004

Where have all the FoundViews gone?

Someone forwarded the story of the “lone Chernobyl motorcyclist” to Steven Den Beste, which naturally resulted in a lengthy and interesting article that has very little to do with Chernobyl, motorcycles, or the common Internet tendency to share wonderful, unlikely things with everyone you know.

I’m going to go in a different direction.

When I first saw the story, I thought her claimed actions were less interesting than the reactions people had to them. Geeks everywhere embraced her, for her coolness, her hotness, and in many cases, the politics they projected into her pictures.

When she was exposed as a fraud (something which is strongly supported by her decision to subsequently alter the claims on her site), the reactions were even more interesting. It seemed to be a pretty even split between “how dare you destroy this wonderful story!”, “oh, c’mon, why would she want to fake something like this?”, and “she’s got a husband? dammit!”.

Which is a long-winded way of leading up to what I really want to talk about, the short-lived artistic movement known as FoundView. The official web site seems to have disappeared several years ago, but it’s left its legacy (and its slogan) on a number of photography sites (1, 2, 3, chosen for their Google page rank, not necessarily on the basis of their merit), mostly ones devoted to nature and wildlife.

There’s also an archived thread on photo.net from six years ago, in which I attempted to pin down the movement’s creator and supporters on just what it meant, in terms understandable to the alleged audience. I was, shall we say, less than completely successful. In fact, my first attempt was deleted by the moderator, an enthusiastic convert who found no merit in debating the issue.

FoundView, as originally articulated, was an attempt to draw a line in the sand and say that photographs on one side were accurate depictions of reality, and that ones on the other side were, at the very least, possibly deceptive. The presence of the FoundView mark on a photo was intended as an assurance to the viewer that the photograph was in some way true.

Except that it wasn’t. Stripped of the fancy language, it was obvious that Micah’s motivation was an opposition to digital manipulation of images, whether or not the results accurately represented the scene photographed. There’s nothing wrong with hating the power of Photoshop, but if that’s what you’re doing, just say so.

Even more deceptive was his choice of the name for his movement, which attempted to co-opt the common photographic term found view, which I’d define as “photographing a scene exactly as you found it, without changing any of the elements before recording them.” A found view is an exercise in composition, creating meaning in a photograph by the selection of elements and the emphasis of their existing relationship. A Playboy centerfold is most definitely not a found view.

It is, however, a FoundView, because this philosophy was about presenting a final image that faithfully recreated the scene at the moment the shutter was opened, regardless of how that scene came to be. The model really existed, she really stood in that position on that set, and, thanks to an army of stylists, she really did look like that at the moment that the photographer took the picture. The picture was retouched, of course, and these days that means Photoshop, but the core of FoundView, as stated by Micah, was:

“The FoundView checkmark guarantees that a given photograph depicts only the forms and shapes that were seen at the scene when the picture was taken… Believing that the viewer has a right to know when forms and shapes in a photograph have been altered, FoundView provides a simple way for photographers to voluntarily label their own photographs accordingly. The FoundView checkmark signifies that post-shutter manipulation, if any, was limited to tonal variations and that no one involved in producing a FoundView photograph moved, added, deleted (except by cropping), or otherwise altered the forms and shapes in that photograph.”

People who embraced FoundView weren’t fond of the Playboy example, because they were trying to say that their photographs were real, and that, despite its adherence to the letter of the rules, a Playboy centerfold was fake and everyone knew it. They were even less fond of my suggestion that they stand at the one-hour photo booth at Wal-Mart and hand out rolls of FoundView stickers to everyone who came in to pick up their pictures, because every artless snapshot in the world met both the letter and the spirit of FoundView.

Which was a problem. If, as they claimed, the FoundView mark was designed to become a “Good Housekeeping Seal” of photographic purity, affixed to every realistic image to reassure a public wary of deceptively manipulated images, then anyone whose work was unlabeled became suspect. In the unlikely event that it became commonly understood by the public, the mark would have cast doubt on everyone who did not consciously embrace its philosophy and symbolism; it would have said “my picture is real, and that other guy’s is fake.”

So what does this have to do with Elena’s web site?

…one of the pictures on her original site was inside a kindergarden. It’s a picture of a baby’s crib, with a photo of Lenin, a child’s gas mask, and some toys. These photos were ‘staged’ by Elena’s husband. He found the photo of Lenin elsewhere, put it in the cott and placed a gas mask alongside then took a photo of it.

This is not a found view, but it is a FoundView, and judging by many of the reactions to her work, the emotional response she created with these deceptions was strong, strong enough that people would rather believe the lie. And the dirty secret is that all photographs lie; an earnest nature photographer determined to represent Truth still carefully selects her subjects, compositions, exposure, color palette, focus, and depth of field, and inevitably edits her work to find the one shot that best represents her artistic vision. Her truth.

When the Daguerreotype first became popular, many painters sneered at this upstart competitor. A photograph could not be a portrait, they said, but only a mere likeness. I’m delighted that Micah’s attempt to revive this exclusionary attitude has foundered, and that media attempts at deceptive digital manipulation have started to lead the public to distrust any photos presented as evidence. There are still a lot of people who’ll believe any picture that supports their prejudices, like the phony prisoner-abuse photos (one set a deliberate hoax, the other staged for an adult web site), but I think the people who embraced FoundView underestimated the public’s ability to grasp the possibilities of digital deception, and overestimated their own ability to set a new standard for photographic realism.

Me? I’m just not talented enough at digital manipulation to create a convincing phony image, so I stay out of those Fark contests. Ironically, my online photo archive is popular primarily because people believe that my shots of fully-dressed models years or decades after their centerfold appearances are more real than Playboy’s nudes, and that in many cases the subjects are more physically attractive as well.

I do some very light retouching, within the limits of my ability (prominent zits, lipstick on the teeth, etc), but my primary manipulation tools are a big soft flash and a filter that slightly warms the colors and softens the fine details. And I take at least three shots of everyone and throw most of them away.