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Don't trust this picture

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"Are press photographers to be reduced to little more than fleshy bipods?" wonders MIT prof William J. Mitchell (pictured at left) in The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, his recent book on the implications of digital photo manipulation, that computer wizardry that permits pictures full of lies to look as real as photographs. In his article "When Is Seeing Believing?" published in last February's Scientific American, Mitchell presented two digitally tampered-with variants on a news photo showing George Bush and Margaret Thatcher strolling through a garden. Bush was moved from Thatcher's left side to her right in one version and brought closer to her in another, leading to quite different interpretations of their body language. "What actually took place between George Bush and Margaret Thatcher--a chat, a quarrel or an intimate whisper?" asked Mitchell.

"The only reason that photographic fakes are important is that people are so gullible," he says now. He argues that before photographs came along, we all had a more reasonable relationship to pictures, grasping their subjectivity. A century and a half of Kodak moments has blinded us to the artifice of image making. "Now I think people are very vividly aware that there are all kinds of interventions possible," he says. As he put it in his book: "An interlude of false innocence has passed."

Mitchell will give an illustrated lecture on photo manipulation Monday at 6 PM in the auditorium of the School of the Art Institute, at Columbus and Jackson. Admission is $3, free for students and seniors. For more information, call 443-3711.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joe Wrinn.

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