[VIEWPOINT]When photographs do really lie

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[VIEWPOINT]When photographs do really lie

People either fall victim to or are flattered by portrait photographs.

When people are captured in a photographic image, what usually happens is that the portraits either make them look better than they are in real life or do them injustice, sometimes depriving the subjects of their dignity.

We call someone photogenic if he looks good in pictures but blame the photographer when the picture is unflattering.

Strictly speaking, photographs do not lie; you look exactly the way you look in real life in a photograph. I can say this because I have had many experiences in which I tried to put a gloss on my human subjects, but to no avail.

The essence of photographs is a quick reproduction of reality. To get more accurate images more quickly, manufacturers and photographers have continuously tinkered with and upgraded cameras and films.

The larger the film image, the better the resolution of the final image. Images in analog photographs - photographic film - are made up of silver particles, which are the equivalent of the pixels of digital photos.

When we enlarge photographs, those particles are magnified, and fine details are lost in the enlargement.

Eight-by-ten inch film sheets are used in large cameras and are about 60 times bigger in area than the regular 35-millimeter rolls of film that we commonly use in our automatic cameras. If you want to print eight-by-ten inch photographs with that large film, the particles of the photo do not have to be enlarged at all.

That obviously is not the case with 35-millimeter film, so your images are 60 times sharper with the large-format film than when you print photographs of the same size with 35-millimeter film. But that extra sharpness comes at a price; the large-format cameras are bulky and heavy. You also need to use a large tripod for stability, so you cannot be very agile with the bigger cameras.

You may achieve photorealism - the reproduction of detailed reality - in your photos, but it is difficult to capture the dynamism of a moment.

We take pictures to get a glimpse of the innate qualities of the objects, but the too-vivid colors and textures in large photographs often blind the eyes of the beholders from seeing the personalities of the persons in the photographs.

Like paintings by an artist who is good only at painstaking detail, the extreme materialism of some large-format prints can leave us numb, like a beautiful sky when rain would better match our mood.

In contrast, snapshots that are taken offhandedly, perhaps even a bit out of focus, sometimes trade detail for the mood of the subject and the moment.

Ironically, extreme photorealism, a product of technological advances, eventually betrayed reality.

Here is another irony brought about by digital photography: Manipulation of analog images are hard to disguise. You examine a photo carefully and can see the techniques used. But manipulating digital photos is easy and undetectable.

Studio portraits compliment people. Bigger cameras are used to make the skin texture smooth, but the clearer image produced by large film also exposes more vividly any facial defects like a dark complexion, scars or acne. So photographers touch up such photographs.

In fact, how well you could touch up portraits used to determine how good you were as a photographer.

These days, with the help of a mighty gadget called a computer, not only pictures taken in studios but also everyday snapshots can be "enhanced." Rather, I would say, they are "totally embellished."

ID photos, so to say, are the essential function of photographs. If others cannot identify you by looking at your passport photos, that means either you are bogus or your photos are.

I have heard that job interviewers have to look hard these days to match the job seekers sitting before them with the electronically-powdered faces in their resumes. Technology develops, and the essence is diluted.

Is that because we are living in a transitional period?

Well, if there is or was a period which was not transitional, I would rather be living in it. Photos can lie too much.


The writer is a photographer.

by Kang Un-gu

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