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I profess not to be any great writer.

These are the ponderings

of a poor man's mind.

  • Nate Barker

What You See Isn't What You Had

Updated: 4 hours ago

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what can be said about a picture that has been edited or changed?

I like to take the occasional photo and these days it's snapped with my ubiquitous cell phone, which seems to always be tucked neatly into the right-hand back pocket of my pants. Gone are the days of carrying my Nikon over my shoulder and venturing out for an intentional photo shoot. It's a type of freedom to be able to tuck a secret photo lab into your pocket and be able to quickly capture an image of something that strikes your fancy. Maybe it's cheating. Maybe I've lost the ability to take a simple walk in the woods or down a city street without being on the lookout for something sublime. Sometimes, I find myself intentionally leaving the phone behind, but not as often as I would like.

When I get back from my walks I take time to look through some of the images I've captured. Inevitably they disappoint. "That blue-green of the water was way more blue-greener in real life." "The depth of that vista was much more impressive with the naked eye." "What! It's out of focus!"

Sometimes the photos are deleted, but every once in a while they make it onto the computer and into a little program that has moved from being a noun to a verb; Photoshop. Yes, I will take those so-so lack luster images and try to Photoshop them. Adjust the levels, the hue and saturation, the shadows and highlights. A little bit of the dodge tool here, a little bit of the burn tool there. Sharpen this part, blur this corner - pull out details hidden in underexposures. I'm always amazed by what I'm able to do with a bland looking image.

For your consideration. This photo was taken in September of 2022 at Thompson Park in Watertown, NY. Beside one of the winding roads, leading to the hilltop on which the park rests, is a giant limestone retaining wall. Decades of vine growth cover it like creeping aged hands, spindly and sadly frail. To the naked eye it is a beautiful symmetry of browns and deep reds reaching from a single stalk towards infinite ends. So, out came the cell phone and the picture snapping ensued.

Vines shot on IPhoneSE 2020

When I saw this image later on my computer I was disappointed. Where was the color? Where was the definition? Then I reminded myself that the photo was taken on a cell phone not my old Nikon. So into Photoshop it went for surgery.

It was a tough patient. Vines needed to be darkened to bring back the life-blood color my minds-eye remembered. The supporting limestone backbone needed cleaning and level adjustments. The ground beneath the walls feet had been covered in beautiful fall foliage which had turned arthritic and cold. Saturation points would heal that neuropathy. Near its crown, the wall let way into a washed out sky. Maybe some adjustments to the highlights and shadows, as well as a bit of blur would help. By the time I was done and had the patient off the table this was the result.

Vines after Photoshop editing

I think it makes for a pretty good picture. Lots of color, more depth and bit more life than the original. Yet, it's not truly the original. The original was seen by my naked eye, processed by my brain and transmuted into an emotional response that made me take a photo of it. I'm not sure that the original is even accessible in my mind anymore. I've worked with the photo and its edited cousin so much they have superseded the memory of what I saw. What I now see isn't what I had.

I offer this as a metaphor for life. In a world full of images and stories, are there some that have been manipulated and changed, sometimes to the point that they no longer resemble the original? How many of my own memories have been refurbished by years of new experiences and retellings where new hues, colors and highlights have been added? How many times do I blur some of the less interesting facts in order to sharpen the parts that I feel create a better image? What are the ethics of this? Does it really matter if the final product is a beautiful one? Or does this metaphor break down? To manipulate art is one thing, to manipulate life is another.

But how much of the life we live is already manipulated? How many of the stories and memories that feed into our collective consciousness are fully original and true? As humans we tend to take the path of least resistance knowing that comfort and survival can outweigh work and pain. It has been my experience that we as humans constantly manipulate our collective images in order to make sense of the world around us.

Politics, religion, families, institutions, cliques, professions...these, and many more, have agreed to collectivize; coming together to share similar stories to create a framework in which the world can be surveyed. We willing agree to be part of these collectives and to share in the forming of the images they create. In most, if not all cases, we tend to whole heartedly agree with the collective image given to us. We align with the story the political party tells us. We agree to all the tenets of the faith. We believe the family stories. We protect our institutions founding. We battle for our niche way of life, never admitting that we've not done the hard work of researching the origins of the ideas we help perpetuate.

How did that party or politician get its start? What stories are true and which are fabricated for self-survival? How was that holy book written and how did the people, ideas, and cultures of the ensuing centuries impact how we experience it? What are the true family stories that are hidden under piles of shame and pain?

I believe, like an ill taken picture, stories can be revitalized and beauty can come from the confusion and fuzziness of the past. The object is not to obscure what was, but to be honest about what could be. Yes, the political party lied. Yes, the holy man obscured the ambiguity of the text. Yes, the abuser went unpunished and continued to attend family reunions. Yet, knowing those stories in all their confusion and hypocrisy will help forge a new and better life together. Our doubt, questioning and honest hard research can take us into new and beautiful ways of being.

I would argue that all photographers should be publishing their original image beside their edited one. Let's have the real and raw next to the bold and beautiful. Like lives lived in honesty, let's see where we came from and where we're headed. What you see is rarely what you will get...but at least you'll know it.

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