Friday 29 July 2011

Retouched photographs

The National Portrait Gallery in London currently has an exhibition "Glamour of the Gods", showing photographs of film stars from the 1920s to the 1960s. One of the displays shows a photograph before and after retouching. The label explains that retouching was meant to remove the effect of harsh lighting in accentuating blemishes. Thus the retouched photograph would give the viewer a fairer impression of what he or she would see, in ordinary light, on meeting the subject. Or perhaps, it would yield the photograph that would have been produced if high-resolution film could have been used in ordinary light.

These two are different, because only the latter respects the fact that one still has a photograph, and that seeing a photograph is not the same as seeing its subject in the flesh. We doubtless do some unconscious work on a photograph before our eyes, in order to imagine the experience of a meeting in the flesh. That makes the latter characterization better than the former, because it leaves a place for that unconscious work.

But it is still problematic. There is the obvious practical problem of limiting the extent of retouching. The difference made is astonishing, and one can assume that the photographer was happy to go way beyond correcting for the harsh studio light, in order to produce a false perfection. Beyond that, there is the theoretical problem of thinking in terms of a photograph that would have been produced if photographic technology had been different. The notion will only be well-defined if we can specify the respects in which it would have been different, and can justify our choice of one particular set of differences rather than any other set.

Conveniently, there may be a good answer here. We may assume either that the same film could have been used in much lower light because the subject could have kept perfectly still, or that the chemistry of film might have been different, so that fewer photons were required to produce a high-resolution image. But once we probe a bit, it seems that even those answers are not perfect. A human being who sets out to remain perfectly still for a minute will hold herself differently from one who is not required to do so. And there comes a point when fewer photons lead to blurred edges: a minimum number of photons is required for a given quality of image, regardless of the film's chemistry.

We should therefore ask whether we ought to make arbitrary assumptions in order to save an aesthetic analysis, on the ground that the assumptions look as though they are about something that is independent of the work of art: in this case, how people hold themselves, or the physics of light.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Public space

Yesterday I noticed that yet another bookshop along Charing Cross Road has been transformed into a café. So what? Cityscapes change. Cafés in London are often too crowded, so we could do with more. And we can find books, new and secondhand, on the Internet. It would not even be difficult to reproduce the pleasure of browsing by integrating shops' catalogues and the sample pages that are visible on Google Books. Only the musty smell, and the exchanged smiles with fellow hunters of obscure volumes of desire, would be lost.

Those losses would be real, but not great, and there are gains too, in this case café space. But cafés are for those with the money to buy their wares. London has never encouraged the hire of a table for the whole morning by the purchase of a single round of espressi. Even decent restaurants tell you that you have only 90 minutes for lunch. So we cannot see the proliferation of cafés as providing the public space for all that is so valuable. In fine weather, there is no lack. There are squares and parks. But when it is cold or wet, we need something else. We have it in London, up to 6 pm or thereabouts, in our splendid, and free, museums. But they are not places to chatter too loudly, or to sit down in large groups and gossip.

I offer no particular remedy, not even agorai in giant plastic bubbles. But it strikes me that public spaces, open to all, without payment or any other qualification such as residence or respectability, are vital. It therefore pains me to see large chunks taken out of Hyde Park and walled in for commercial events, as often happens on the eastern side of the park. More generally, those thinkers (often right-libertarians) who are opposed to all public property, who would put all land into private ownership on the basis that it will be in the interests of the landowners to sell admission to others, suffer from far too narrow a vision of human life.