The case of the missing lake, making paintings out of photographs, fake videos, Harari’s 21 Lessons, and Stevenson’s Just Mercy
by Rob Tiller
On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park to see how the leaves were doing. It was a brisk 51 degrees, and the light was undramatic, without a cloud in the sky. I was sorry to find they’d drained the lower lake to repair the dam, and the mud in the lake bed wasn’t so pretty. But the upper lake was still a lake, and it was good to be outdoors, smelling the fallen leaves.
I took a few pictures, including some with my 10 stop filter for long exposures that smoothed out the lake surface. I wasn’t especially enamored of any of them, but I did enjoy experimenting on them with Topaz Studio. This software will turn photographs into many different styles of paintings. A few of my initial efforts with the tool are paired here with their source photos.
Is it OK to make an impressionist painting in a few minutes, without a paintbrush? I say yes, with this qualification: we should be honest and forthright about what we’re doing. We’re interacting with nature using our own imagination, aided by our DSLR cameras and our processing software, which draws on manifold technical and creative sources, including the artistic geniuses of times past. That said, if the images work — touching us, moving us — they work.
There is certainly the possibility of artistic fraud, and it should give us pause. This week we’ve seen the White House promoting fake video of a reporter assaulting a press office person. It wasn’t a particularly good fake, so it was quickly detected. But it’s getting so easy to make reasonably convincing fake video that you and I could do it. This technology will surely change the way we think about the images, and probably make us trust our eyes less. There’s a good piece by Joshua Rothman in this week’s New Yorker about the people who are advancing this technology, including some who worry about its implications.
That said, photographers will continue to seek interesting subjects, and interesting things to do with those subjects. On the way back from Durant, I stopped at Peace Camera. The store used to be on Peace Street, a couple of blocks from our building, but it’s now in north Raleigh. I was sorry when it moved, but I really like the new store, and the sales people were friendly and helpful. I found a couple of new gadgets I liked, and enjoyed talking shop with one of the sales guys about practical photography challenges, like finding a good storage bag for circular filters.
On the trip home, I listened to the latter part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli history professor, and also a vegan and dedicated meditator. The title is unfortunate, since it sounds like it might be a self-help or text book. In fact, it’s a bracing discussion of serious global problems, including racism, authoritarianism, robotics and AI, genetic engineering, economic dislocation, climate change, and nuclear war.
Harari takes a very long historical view, starting prior to homo sapiens, and has broad geographic and intellectual scope. He moves along quickly (sometimes too quickly), but of course, some of the issues he addresses are existential, with short deadlines. Among other minor points, he notes that there is nothing new about fake news. The earliest civilizations were organized around animating myths with no factual basis, and generally speaking this is true of us as individuals. This could be viewed as depressing, but I prefer to take it as a foundation for humility and tolerance.
I finally finished Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, and has spent decades seeking justice for row inmates and others. He provides new perspectives on the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racial bias in the American legal system. He has a really big heart. Given the brutality of his chosen for his battleground and the long odds against success, it’s remarkable that he has not given in to cynicism and despair. I found his book an inspiring source of hope.