A Brief History of Seeing and Believing

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There is something seriously wrong with this image, but it’s not the fact that it’s upside-down. In fact, you probably won’t be able to tell what it is.

Our sense of sight is generally considered to be the most developed of our senses — some estimates suggest that 85 percent of the information we take in about the world arrives to us through our visual system — but the human eye is also more likely to be deceived than any other sense.

For example, see what happens when we turn the image rightside-up:

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Although our eyes aren’t receiving any new information, our perceptual experience of the image has dramatically changed.

This is because though our eyes are the physical receivers of light, it is our brain that interprets the world. While information may come in through the optic nerve, it gets delivered to our brain for processing. Therefore, we “see” more than just the physics of light. All the information that we receive about the external world comes in and mixes with all of our thoughts, preconceived notions, memories, and emotions.

What makes our sense of sight so subject to persuasion lies in the way the brain interprets information and in the series of mental “cheats” it has developed. The brain has developed shortcuts to understand three-dimensional relationships, motion, missing information, and help us recognize faces (or, in the case of something called “Thatcher Effect” above, which is determined by holistic face processing —overlook what’s wrong with them).

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The Thatcher Effect

Millions of years of evolution helped to develop the technics of our visual system, but thousands of years of cultural evolution crafted our system for interpreting this information. Seeing is believing, but sometimes what we believe isn’t what we actually see.

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An 18th-century illustration demonstrating the Camera Obscura effect

Studies of the eye have been developing since antiquity, and discoveries about the eye and vision have often been used as metaphors for conceptions of thinking and cognition.

For example, above is the camera obscura, which literally means a “dark chamber.” It shows a natural phenomenon that occurs when light traveling in a straight line passes through a small hole (like a hole in a wall) and instead of scattering, reforms as an upside down image on a flat surface held parallel to the hole. This mimics how the curve of an eye bends an image upside down onto the retina, before it is flipped back up again by the brain.

For a long time, and especially during the Age of Enlightenment, the camera obscura was used as a metaphor for the clear observations of the human mind and the benefits of the empirical study of the natural world. The eye was thought to be a reliable observer of nature, and to provide a clear path to truth.

Within a few decades of the early 19th Century, however, the way that people conceived of vision radically changed. New studies of the eye and how it could be deceived began to uncover vision as more subjective than Enlightenment thinkers had once thought, and as ultimately grounded in the physiological makeup of the viewer and grounded within the body, as opposed to in the external world.

An optical toy called the Thaumatrope, one of the precursors of animation

This is the thaumatrope, which is a Victorian toy which plays with our mind’s tendency to blend still images in its interpretation of motion — in this case, demonstrating a concept called flicker fusion, which is also the principle which allows us to understand movies as coherent, moving scenes as opposed to a series of fragmented, individual images.

The thaumatrope allowed viewers to examine exactly how they were being deceived. The toy could be spun slowly, allowing the images to break apart — or it could be sped up, blending the images together and seemingly fusing them as one.

Whereas the thaumatrope let the viewer become the author of their own illusionment and disillusionment, however, it’s not always as clear what we’re making up and what is real. Especially in the early days of photography, this line of perceived truth was often crossed and confused. Photography was so stunning in its ability to present the world with unprecedented accuracy that it was not immediately obvious how far its powers reached.

Spiritualist photography, for example, overstepped traditional documentary and aimed to photograph ghosts and energies and vital forces, making the invisible world of thoughts, dreams, and emotions visible. Often those who had lost loved ones were desperate to find proof of spiritual existence, and would pay photographers handsomely for reassurance.

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Spirit photograph taken of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Ada Deane, 1922

Almost since the moment photography was invented it has been manipulated, taking advantage of its inherent power for deception. Throughout history, misleadingly posed or set-up photographs have influenced public opinion, and composite images, like this image of President Lincoln’s head on the body of another politician, were used to influence political options much in the same way many fear Photoshop can today.

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An 1860 photograph of Abraham Lincoln manipulated to show his head on the body of John Calhoun

In fact, the idea of “visual discernment” was an important metaphor in the politics of the 1850s. Popular nineteenth-century arguments that a “modern society” was one which protected itself from the rule of tyrants by empowering their understanding of their own visual experience would easily sound at home in any article about fake news, Photoshop, or deep fakes today. Though the technology used has changed, the fundamental questions of spectatorship, belief, and interpretation largely remain the same.

Just as the Victorians began to study the ways in which our eyes are subjective conveyors of information, so we, at our modern moment, are considering our own world and our modern representational practices and confronting their inadequacies. Both the Victorian era and our modern moment represent pivotal turning points in our relationship to representational practices and the inadequacies of our own subjective modes of visual discernment.

Although technology has changed over time and there are now even more complicated ways than ever to be deceived, we often still struggle with the fundamental principles of misrepresentation, misinterpretation, and framing.

For example, this is a recent image you might have seen which was spread online as an image of a Trump rally in Pheonix, but was actually of a 2016 Cleveland Cavs parade.

Other images may be set up, or taken out of context, or an image might accompany an article and influence the way in which the information in the article is interpreted.

However, in many ways, the misinterpretation of photography and images does seem to be more pressing and urgent than at any other point in history. For example, the above image of Iran launching a series of missile tests in 2008 was doctored by the Iranian media to make their launch appear more successful than it really was.

In matters of national security, decisions often have to be made nearly instantaneously, and there is currently no technology that can definitely say whether an image has been doctored, and the human eye is inconsistent in spotting fakes. Beyond basic concepts of visual literacy and knowledge of light in an image, we are generally bad at instinctively telling whether or not images are real.

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The complicated path of light through the prisms and sensors of a digital camera

Digital photography no longer represents an indexical relation to the world on even the most basic of levels. Unlike the passage of light physically effecting silver chemicals, as in the imprints analogue photography, everything about photography is now a translation, interpretation, or inversion, and new technologies for photography often open up new questions about authorship and spectatorship. For example, the Lytro camera offers viewers the possibility of setting the focus of an image after it has been taken, stripping photographer’s of one method of controlling an image’s meaning (opting to blur protesters being a controversial political act, for example). Photosynth is able to combine hundreds of images. There are cameras that fire ten lenses at once and stitch them into a single image. Many images can now geotag their locations, record the temperature of the scene, or take 360 images. Google Glass can interpret and translate signs in front of you in real time and use the information it gathers to answer questions you direct about images before you.

Images demonstrating the dramatic changes that lens choice can have on a portrait

But it’s important to note that photography has never held a pure access point to truth. For example, the above image was just taken by swapping what lens was used. That could have been done just as easily in the 1860s.

Though technology changes, issues of spectatorship largely remain the same. If we can ground fears of deception and fake news and visual trickery in an historical context it can give us a set of tools with which to approach these issues. By digging deeper into the earliest questions of photography and truth, we may be able to discover — what are today’s ideological questions and deceptions?

Spirit photography often capitalized on the grief of mourning sitters, desperate to find evidence of their loved ones still surrounding them, but even after the general public was well-accustomed to the concept of photo manipulation, the concepts behind spirit photography were still ardently held onto and believed in select circles. Even those who were knowledgeable about what photography could and could not produce allowed themselves to be persuaded based on what they wished to see. Even in 1920, this image of fairies supposedly photographed by two girls in Cottingley convinced those who wished to believe that the camera had powers beyond the human eye. Even today, ghosts are sometimes discovered “caught” on CCTV cameras and their photographic evidence held up by those who wish to believe.

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Frances Griffiths with the alleged “Cottingley Fairies” in 1917

It seems that, almost on a fundamental level, we have trouble not believing the truth of a photography. Especially when an image conforms to a story we would like to see it is really hard not to press “share”, even though we know on a rational level that photographs can be manipulated or taken out of context.

Photography is, after all, a social text, and the process of seeing and interpreting is influenced by cultural concerns. While “fake news” and photo manipulation may seem like relatively new concerns, their twisted roots extend all the down to the very birth of the medium.

To further explore the complicated relationship that photography holds to truth, as well as to the varying thoughts and interpretations that have surrounded photography’s truth claim at every stage in it’s history, I have created a website that traces 130 years of criticism surrounding a single controversial photograph taken by Lewis Carroll of the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland - www.annotateddarkroom.com

Happy browsing!

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