False Idols

False Idols

The older I get, the more I wonder if the Amish got things right.

I remember long-ago vaguely learning about cultures that feel a photograph can steal a person’s soul. More and more I also wonder about the validity of that statement.

(And sorry, I tried to research more on this topic but the Google Search Results gave me a headache).

False Idols

We no longer have control of any image, unless we’re billionaires with high-powered PR teams and takedown requests. We don’t even have control over what we see; the algorithm can change that without our consent.

Just look at how much short videos are being shoved down our throats lately, in response to TikTok’s pandemic ascent. Or how Facebook recently blocked a critical Kansas Reflector opinion piece.

It was one thing when photographs were mostly buried deep in books and magazines. There are photographs I feel more comfortable showing in a book or album versus on a website or social, and some not showing at all. Sometimes I feel more comfortable after time has passed.

And of course, anyone could scan a photo and unleash it into the wild, but I don’t think that changes the spirit and intent. 

False Idols

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”

I’m the last person that should quote gotquestions.org, but “The phrase ‘graven image’ comes from the King James [Bible] Version and is first found in Exodus 20:4 in the second of the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word translated “graven image” means literally ‘an idol.'”

Images have become idols, things of worship. They multiply, give birth, misinterpret or over-simplify, and they bully us with their power dynamics and backlighting. The image itself is now the idol, not what’s in it.

Corporations have harnessed chip power and machine learning to steal our images and feed them back to us in different combinations. False idols.

And anyway, AI sucks at art. That’s not what it’s built for.

The real power of AI is a company like ImagenAI helping to speed up and automate certain aspects of batch post-processing by learning past actions (i.e., cropping, straightening, and color-correcting event photos), so we have more time for actual art. It’s life-changing how much time Imagen saves with event post-production.

It’s so we can do art. We don’t need computers to do the art for us, we need them to do the other mundanity. 

But just wait until they start creating AI images of us and texting them to our relatives asking for Venmo money. (Facebook Is Filled With AI-Generated Garbage—and Older Adults Are Being Tricked.)

False Idols

I can’t find the source, but there is a talk from a cosmetic dentist about how poorly she believed modern dentistry was going to look as society and trends change. Facial trends, yikes.

Everybody wants, not just good, but perfect teeth. But our eyes can tell the fakeness of perfect. So instead, when this doctor creates new teeth for patients, she gives slight variance to color and length, just enough to trick us.

This article sums it up: Have You Noticed That Everyone’s Teeth Are a Little Too Perfect?

We’re altering how we look in real life to mimic retouched photographs. And the reason people sometimes mistake AI images for real ones is not because the AI images look real, but because regular photographs now look fake.

Similarly, when retouching business portraits, it’s a good idea not to remove anything but the most egregious pimples, instead reducing their visibility so the eye still perceives the person as natural. Once those blemishes are fully gone, we know.

So is there a point to this or is it just a ramble?

I’m not sure, but the reality is, if you photograph people, you are taking things. Heck, as viewers we take things as well.

I don’t know if it’s their soul per se, but it’s something that doesn’t belong to us. That’s an issue I grapple with, and one constantly changing as our visual world changes. So please be sensitive.


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17 thoughts on “False Idols”

  1. The teeth thing is spooky. But I’m of the opinion we have to be skeptical when viewing images, unless we know the individual personally. Corporate images, take with a grain of salt. Gives me another reason to limit or withdraw from most social media sites. But I won’t give up making images. I love the process of creating.
    Best, John Jennings

  2. You have some good and valid points to think about.

    Some cultures banned painting portraits of people, which in the modern era translated to photos. I had one person come to me during an outdoor social gathering and ask that he or his family not be photographed due to their faith.
    Some cultures prohibit identifying graves with who’s inside.
    Temples in some cultures prohibit photographing inside, especially the deities and rituals.
    Many of those restrictions were meant as protection against something in their times. Over time, like everything else, they lost their meaning and became reasons for shaming, punishment, and other types of enforcement. Proper education on those restrictions, and modification of rules when justified, would be the right course.

    Today’s story is the opposite. Photography was always a niche hobby/profession. It was expensive during film era. The rise of affordable digital cameras boosted it to unexpected volumes. The spread of online media also boosted misuse of those photos. The spread of artificial photos and spread of misinformation through them is becoming a pandemic.

    Very soon, restrictions will come. That is society’s natural way to react when there’s no better alternative. While bad per se, such restrictions may be necessary for preventing some crimes and mental health issues. On the contrary, others will complain that the restrictions are killing innovation.

    1. Very interesting comment Satya. There is no balance now. And it would be nice if there were rules behind how the algorithms work, especially for kids. I watch the stuff that Youtube serves up to my kid and it concerns me.

  3. It’s funny that people need slight imperfections in their false teeth in order for them to be believable. If you’ve ever done work with computer graphics, you’d probably have figured out a long time ago that you need to add some randomness or jitter to repeatedly generated objects (e.g. trees in a scene) or else they will look unnatural. It takes a good chunk of time to get this right, and a lot of time to make things look organic. Even in drawing, this is why I find a lot of drawing dissatisfying. When the erstwhile artist executes nothing but their agenda, what comes out looks like a bad cartoon. So I don’t think you need a computer to necessarily make something unnaturally “perfect.” Then the role of computers (and AI-assisted editing even more so) is to make it easier to blow your foot off. All the same, I think it helps people learn something about the creative process – at least those who care about such things.

  4. Interesting. My parents were Amish, so I have many relatives who are Amish. On my blog I have many photos of Amish. I try to be discreet. A portion of them are ok, with photos, but are more hesitant to pose for photos.

  5. I like the photo below which evidently is actually there in digital form. Personally, I would have cropped a little of it around the edges, which I find distracting, but hey, to each their own. The photo reminds me of footprints of ancient humans found in solidified mud or sand but with a decidedly modern twist…instead of foot prints and toes we have the design of a modern capitalist corporation’s graphic imprinted on the bottom of one of it shoes. In the distant future it may raise the question “what kind of animal produced this imprint.”

  6. Look, we are thieves us Street photographers. We use film and sensors to steal the impression left by photons reflected off unwitting subjects. But we love those reflections. We caress them in the editing programs. We catalogue and store them carefully. We revisit them and appreciate them. We hope that others will too, so we share them. Surely they wouldn’t rather just be deleted?

    1. Ha, maybe not thieves but I think there’s a mischievous trait to many people attracted to this type of photography. We have to have respect for the people we photograph, but it is all a blurry line between what is right and wrong.

  7. James, I think there is a GREAT and DEEP point here. Same happens for music, if you notice: auto-tune and envelope filters were initially used merely to cover the lack of voice technique by the industry-chosen “artist” of the moment. But, with the help of lacking musical education, the horrible fake sound of auto-tune has become part of the taste and it is now part of the standard mainstream music package.
    Something similar would apply to pizza in the US, but I don’t want to strike nerves here!! 😀

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Marco – and very interesting about the auto-tune. It is interesting how similar trends manifest themselves in different art forms. And can’t speak for US pizza, only for NYC pizza which is a separate thing!

    1. Agree Tim. AI is far from sentient and is currently a regurgitation machine (which it’s incredibly good at, albeit with faults). But the speed of advances has slowed significantly and it needs massive amounts of content to learn, which we can’t create. And as it trains on its own output it is beginning to eat itself.

      1. My fear is there is no limit to how much it can learn. I worry about stuff like genetics more than art, although artists may become like ham radio operators in the age of the internet – stalwart hold-outs after the world loses interest. Interesting, Neal deGrasse Tyson predicts the death of social media and news when all trust has burned off. I haven’t finished processing the notion, but I’m strolling toward a belief that old media and arts could actually float back to the surface – live television, film, books – stuff that cranky old people like me happily lived with. Thanks for replying.

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